Recent Sermons

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Date Title (Scripture Reference)
August 11, 2019 In Remembrance of Me: The Lord’s Supper
(1 Corinthians 10:14-22) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon]
When you eat dinner with your family at the table, do you eat right away when you sit down? No, I bet you all pray first, don’t you? After you are done praying, does everyone just reach into the bowls on the table and start eating? No, you put the food on your plate first. Do you pick up your food with your hands? Well, that depends on what it is? Do you eat noodles or rice with your hands? No. How about bread or, one of my favorites, corn on the cob? Yes, those you can eat with your hands. We call these rules we follow at the table, table manners. When we gather around a table for a meal, there are all these rules that we follow.

This morning I am going to talk again about the Lord’s Supper. Last week I spoke of how we also call it the Eucharist because it is a meal of thanksgiving. We call it the Lord’s Supper because we believe that Jesus is present with us when we eat at this table. Paul call it the Lord’s Table. And he says, “You cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.” By that he means that if we eat at the Lord’s Table we are expected to behave a certain way. We are expected to have table manners. But he is not just talking about how we behave at the table, or only when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, or even just when we are at church. He means if we eat at the Lord’s table we should live all our lives according to Jesus’ ways.

Well, what are Jesu’s ways? Jesus once told his disciples, don’t worry about earning lots of money and buying lots of clothes. That’s not what is important in life, but “seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be given unto you.”  Do you know a song with those words in it? “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God.” Well, Miss Roxann is going to play that song when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper to remind us that we have table manners, that we are to live our lives for Jesus, seeking his kingdom before all things.
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[End of Children’s Sermon]

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The other day I was reading a book on spiritual direction in which the author, Susan Phillips, described the difficulty she had with her directee, Ruth.[i] Ruth believed in Jesus, but she also had dabbled in shamanism. She talked frequently about a spirit animal, a giant lizard, who was her guide and protector. Phillips didn’t know what to make of Ruth’s spirit animal. To her the beast appeared sometimes as something demonic while at other times something like Aslan, the great lion who is a Christ figure, in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books - the spirit animal was protective, but definitely not tame.

While seeking advice from a Priest, Phillips had a vision of the beast, but it was prancing on the other side of a burning fire. The priest told her to reach through the fire to the beast. She realized that the fire represented God. Afraid to obey and not to obey, she reached toward the beast, but she soon could not stand the heat of the fire. She writes, “As soon as I was supposed to approach the creature through God, my fear of it was eclipsed by my fear of the fire. God is more fearsome than any power animal. My encounter with the animal comes though God.” 

I wouldn’t be surprised if you find it hard to relate to this story. We don’t like to think of God as dangerous and terrifying. And we certainly don’t think much about if we even believe in demons. My guess is that you therefore also find it hard to relate to Paul’s words to the Corinthian church. He tells them to flee from idols. But we all believe just as he says a few lines later, “Do I mean that … an idol is anything? No” (v.19). We know that idols are not gods. But then Paul goes on to say, “but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons.” While Paul knows there are no other gods, he does take the existence of demons seriously.

But before you brush Paul aside, notice that in the first part of the chapter of our text Paul reminds the Corinthian church that the God they worship is not be trifled with.  Although the Israelites were led by God by a pillar of fire and a cloud, “God was not pleased with most of them; and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness” because of their idolatry.  Now lest you think that Paul is just speaking of the judgmental, Old Testament God, he says, “they all drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.”

In the next verses, our text, Paul instructs the church regarding the Lord’s Supper. When we come to the Lord’s table, we find that Christ accompanies us. He asks, “is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread we break a participation in the body of Christ?” When we come to this table we are entering into an awesome mystery – a mystery that reveals God’s love, a mystery that reveals his presence with us. But a mystery that is not to be trifled with for we are being joined to the very life of God – the God of all creation, the God of all time, the God who is above all and beyond all, yet in all and through all. Let us therefore heed Paul’s warning: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.”

As I was speaking with my spiritual director the other day, it struck us that perhaps this image of the fire and the spirit animal has been haunting me because I have been afraid of something. In preparation for Yingying Zhang’s memorial service, I not only read about her, but also about her murderer. While I don’t fear being murdered myself, I do fear the cultural morass that I believe shaped him and made murder appear to him to be a means of personal achievement and fulfillment. Throughout this week the cloud of the mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton and Gilroy have also hung over me, but particularly the one in El Paso.

What I fear is the narrative that underlies the mass murderer and the would-be serial killer. The former found his motivation in an ideology of hatred, fear and white supremacy. The latter found it in a narrative of personal supremacy. I believe both are derivative of a cultural nihilism, a narrative in which meaning, purpose, security and well-being are derived through power used for oneself or a favored group over against all others. The one sought to make something of himself by committing murder. He had dreams of becoming a serial killer. The other sought to add his name to the pantheon of white supremacist martyrs. The narrative underlying each is that we humans can and must create our own destinies, our own morality, our own narrative – in short, you are what you take.

Again, we might think, “That has nothing to do with me.” But there are other fields in which this narrative plays out. Do not Walmart and Amazon, does not our whole consumerist culture encourage us to buy our identities? What is the “American Dream” except to scratch out a name for yourself by pulling yourself up by your own boot straps?  While not identical, the underlying impulse is the same – you are what you make of yourself.

At heart this narrative tells us that we humans are able to control forces that are beyond our control. The pagans of Paul’s day sacrificed to idols in order to curry the favor of the gods. Modern nihilism tells us that we are masters of our own destiny who must create our own selves. Some seek to do so through terrible and monstrous deeds, some by buy filling their online shopping carts, some by creating a glamourous façade on snapchat, and others by clawing their way up the corporate or academic ladder. Do we dare ignore Paul’s warning as irrelevant? Rather, is it not incredibly timely and apropos? “[We] cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; [we] cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.”

If you continue reading Paul’s letter, you will again encounter what seems to be a situation that is irrelevant to us – whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. But Paul says it doesn’t really matter if you eat such meat or not, what matters is how it affects others. Ultimately, Paul says that to participate in the table of the Lord, to participate in the blood and body of Christ is to live a Christ-like life. It is to “seek the good of many” rather than “seeking my own good.”

To be a participant in the Lord’s Table is to live by a different narrative. It is to live by the narrative in which God comes to us and says, “Do not be afraid. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Genesis 15:1) It is to live in hope of the fulfillment of a promise rather than in fear of anonymity, for God promised Abraham not only to make a great nation of him, but to make a name for him by blessing all the nations through him (Genesis 12:2-3).

To live by this narrative, to participate in this table, is, as Jesus says, to “not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. … Do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them.”  To live by this narrative is to “seek first his kingdom” and to trust that “all these things will be given to you as well.”For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:22-34).

At times it may seem that the darkness is closing in upon us. We see hatred and fear and bigotry acted out in these mass shootings almost weekly. We hear rhetoric that feeds these actions coming from the top leaders of our nation. This past week the Christian Reformed Church issued a “Statement Regarding Mass Shootings” that I have included in your bulletins. In it they claim that these shooters were living by a false narrative. “They were hearing stories about, connecting with communities that support, and believing in the idea that some people are less human than others, and that these “others’” lives are worth less.” They therefore call us not only to live by Jesus’ narrative, but to proclaim it:

We are at a moral turning point. As Christian Reformed people, it is our job not only to preach the gospel of Christ, but to challenge false gospels in society. We are called not only to see all of humanity as image-bearers of God, but to also help others see the world in this way.

But it is not our job to defeat those who hold to these false narratives. It is not our job to fight them face to face. It is not our job to grasp after power and to seek victory. To do that is to live into their narrative. For when we come to this table we proclaim that Jesus has already won the victory –Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. Jesus therefore stands between us and all who oppose his kingdom. We are called to approach those who oppose the kingdom only through Christ, and Christ is more fearsome than they. Our job is to be participants in the body and blood of Christ, to live into his narrative so that by word and deed we can out narrate the false narratives, so that others may see a more excellent and beautiful way to live, so that others may see that though the darkness is strong, the light of Christ shines in the dawning of a new age.

But Jesus does not expect us to do this on our own. He comes to us and enables us by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. If you look at the liturgy of the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving towards the end, before the Lord’s Prayer, there is something called the Epiklesis, which is Greek for “Calling Out.” In this prayer we call out, we invoke the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  For if the Holy Spirit does not act in and through the bread and the wine, the bread and wine are just merely bread and wine. But, by the grace of God, the Holy Spirit is present and does join us to Christ in this meal so that we truly do participate in the body of Christ when we eat the bread and we truly do participate in the blood of Christ when we drink the cup. Because of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, this bread is “Christ’s body for us” so that we might be sent out to live into Christ’s narrative and “to be the body of Christ in the world.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.



[i] Susan S. Phillips, Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Pub, 2008), 91–92.

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August 4, 2019 In Remembrance of Me: The Eucharist
(Luke 22:7-20) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Last week I gave Rissah one of these and I gave her a job to do. I asked her to help the deacons collect the offering. Last week was the last week of my sermons on baptism. We have seen that baptism means a lot of things – that God adopts us as his children, that he washes us of our sins, that he makes us members of his church, and that he gives us new life. Well, it also means that he gives us a job to do. Baptism is a sign or a symbol that Jesus gives us the job of living like him so that others see him when they see us. So when you wear this sash it will be a sign to remind us that we all have a job to do for Jesus.

This morning we are going to begin talking about the Lord’s Supper. Now that is one name for it, but we call it other things too. We call it the Eucharist. Eucharist is a Greek word that means thanksgiving. You all know what Thanksgiving is here in America, right? It is in November when we have a big meal, usually with turkey and potatoes and other good food. We have a feast to remember that the Native Americans helped the Pilgrims when they came to these lands years and years ago. Thanksgiving is also a feast in which we give God thanks for all the food the farmers have grown over the summer. And maybe we think of other things to give God thanks for.

Well, we as Christians have a thanksgiving meal too, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. When we eat the Eucharist we give God thanks for what he has done for us in Jesus Christ. That he came to live with us, to die for us, and that God raised him from the dead so we too can live a new life. Well each month when we celebrate the Eucharist, our Thanksgiving meal, we take a special offering as another way to say “Thank you,” to God. We use the money from the second offering especially for people who are in need. So we thank God by helping others.

So I would like to ask each of you to wear one of these and help the deacons collect the offerings each week this month. Would you be willing to do that? Great. That way when we see you wearing these golden ropes and taking the collection we will remember both that we are given a job to do and that we are giving thanks to God through our offering.
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[End of Children’s Sermon]
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Have you ever been in love? When you are in love, especially at first, you just can’t get enough of the person. You are fascinated by this person. You notice the unique inflection of his voice. You turn your head when you catch a whiff of her perfume. You don’t need to do anything when you are together; you just like being together. When you are apart you find your mind drifting to think about him every so often. And there is no on who makes you so frustrated and even angry. Let’s admit it, when we care deeply about someone they can more easily make us frustrated and angry than someone we don’t even know.

Have you ever been in love with a cause or an idea? You spend hours online reading articles about how to have less of an impact on the environment. You attend Black Lives Matter marches. You campaign for your local representative. You talk to your friends incessantly about your cause. You lay at night wondering how you can make a career fighting for your cause. We love people, but we also love ideas and causes.

And speaking of careers, maybe you have been in love with a vocation. Your job is not 9 to 5 because you live and breathe your calling. You work late into the evening. You can’t wait to get started in the morning. Of course there are always those tasks and responsibilities that we have to do that we don’t like to do, but for the most part you find meaning and purpose and fulfillment in what you do. Even the books you take along on vacation are really background reading for your next project. Or, as in my case, fodder for a sermon idea.

When we love someone or something we offer ourselves to that person or thing or cause. We invest ourselves in them. I am going to put Grace Prom on the spot a second. Grace, Do you recognize this Latin phrase? Core meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. What if I say it in English: “My heart I offer to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely.” This is Calvin College’s motto and it encapsulates John Calvin’s theology of worship. Worship is a declarative act of love in which we offer our hearts - that is our wills, our desires, our whole selves - to God. We have all loved. We have loved and do love other people, causes, and vocations. But do we love God? Is God our first and primary love?

I assume God is our first love, or that we at least desire God to be our first love. That is why we are here today because each week when we come to worship, we come in order to tell God that we love him and that we are trying to put him first in our lives, that we offer our hearts to him, promptly and sincerely. But it is only when we celebrate the Eucharist that we do this explicitly. I say, “Lift up your hearts.” And you say,  We lift them up to the Lord. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give him thanks and praise.” If you look in your bulletins you will see that the Prayer of Thanksgiving begins with the Sursum Corda – Lift up your hearts. Right from the start we know that this is the Eucharist.

I said this encapsulates Calvin’s theology of worship, but only one side of worship. We offer ourselves to God in thanksgiving for what God has done, which is the other half of worship. God calls and gathers us. God forgives us of our sins. He instructs, encourages, comforts and inspires us through his word. And then he commissions us and sends us out into the world. In worship we remember all that God has done, we receive all that he is doing, and we trust in all he will do for us. And so we give thanks.

We call this meal the Eucharist, which I said earlier is Greek for thanksgiving, because it is a feast of thanksgiving. When the Israelites gave a thank offering to God, they would slaughter a goat or a lamb or a bull. Part of it they burnt on the altar, part of it they gave to the priests so that they would have food to eat, and with the rest they would throw a party and have a feast of thanksgiving with family and friends. Because part of it was offered up to God on the altar, those who ate the meal, at the meal in the presence of God. We will see in a moment that this meal has overtones of the Passover, but it also resembles a sacrificial meal following a thank offering.

So what is it that we give thanks for? In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus institutes the Eucharist during the Passover meal. He indicates that what he is about to do on the cross is a sacrifice of his body and blood which will be for the redemption of God’s people. Just as the Passover Lamb was sacrificed for the freedom of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, so Jesus goes to the cross to win our freedom from sin and the effects of sin.

It is for this reason that much of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving focuses on what Jesus did for us through the cross and resurrection. If you look in your bulletins you will notice that the second half of the opening prayer of thanksgiving, after the Sursum Corda focuses on the work of Christ. “Above all we thank you for sending Jesus, your Son, to deliver us from the way of sin and death by the obedience of his life, by his suffering upon the cross, and by his resurrection from the dead.” Many prayers of Thanksgiving place this part of the prayer after the Sanctus, the Holy, Holy, Holy! I think next week’s liturgy does this.

Notice, however, that the cross and resurrection are not the only things we give thanks for. The Prayer of Thanksgiving often starts with a prayer thanking God the Father. “We bless you for you continual love and care for every creature, for forming us in your image and calling us to be your people.” In this section we often thank God for the creation and how he reached out to humanity through Israel, the scriptures and the prophets to bring us back to him even though we had rebelled in sin.

What we should also remember when we “do this in remembrance” of Jesus, is that it is because of Jesus’ incarnation that we praise God the Father for the creation and being made in his image. When the Son of God became human, when the Word of God took on flesh, God affirmed the basic and foundational goodness of the creation. The words of God spoken when he looked over his creation and said, “it is very good,’ reverberate and echo in Jesus’ incarnation. We eat Jesus’ flesh and blood in thanksgiving that this world is good and very good.

Many of you know I have been asked to participate in the memorial service for Yingying Zhang. In preparation for the pastoral prayer for that service, I looked up as many articles I could find that spoke of who she was as a person. I was also given the eulogy prepared by her fiancé. As I read about her I kept thinking, “here is an image of God.” Here is a beautiful person who reveals the goodness that humanity was made to be. She was a dedicated, loyal, caring and loving daughter and sister. Even though she and her family were not wealthy, she always showed compassion for those in greater need. She was a brilliant student. She could sing and play guitar. Not only was she morally good, but she had talents and abilities and intelligence that testify that life itself is basically good. Yingying’s death and the death of the 29 yesterday and this morning are so tragic because their lives were basically and fundamentally good.

And so when we eat this meal in remembrance of Jesus, we give thanks for all that God has done for us and the world and all that is good. We behold the creation and hear the echo, “it is good.” We remember God meeting Abraham and pointing up to the stars saying, “so shall your offspring be,” and we hear the echo, “it is good.” We recall Moses standing before Pharaoh saying, “Let my people go,” and we hear the echo, “it is good.” We remember the prophets and King David, all anointed by God to lead his people and we hear the echo, “it is good.” We see Jesus laying in a manger. “It is good.” We watch a group of friends lower a paralyzed man down in front of an itinerant preacher and healer.. “It is good.” We see a rag tag group of fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes and a Zealot eating a meal with the man they call Rabbi. “it is good.” We walk with two disciples and a stranger down an empty road. He reveals to us how all the scriptures echo with God’s words “it is good” as they point us to Jesus of Nazareth and to his suffering. We reach the town of Emmaus and we gather round a table. The Stranger picks up the bread, gives thanks, breaks it and gives it to us.  Our eyes are opened and we recognize our Lord. “It is very good.”

And so when we gather around this table we gather for, the Eucharist, a Feast of Thanksgiving. We remember that Jesus took upon himself the guilt of our sins, but he also took upon himself the shame of our sins and all the brutality and violence and brokenness of this sinful world. He died and rose again not only so that we might be forgiven of our sins, but also to break the power of sin over us. Through his resurrection he became victorious over sin. Jesus’ resurrection as his incarnation thus affirms the basic, fundamental goodness of human flesh and bone, and of earth’s dirt and stone, of the sky’s clouds and brilliant blues, and the sea’s glistening waves and deep dark hues. More so, the resurrection guarantees not only that all of this – humanity and all creation – is very good, but that it is being remade and transformed, as Paul says, from glory to ever increasing glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Let us come to this Table. Let us lift up our hearts and offer them promptly and sincerely, with joy and great thanksgiving, to our Lord, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Friend, Jesus. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

<Silent prayer.>

Almighty God, we thank you for the wondrous love you have shown to us in Jesus by lifting our hearts up to you. Amen.

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July 28, 2019 Remembering Our Baptism: How to Live
(Colossians 3:1-17) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Sometimes when I am driving to church in the morning, I pass by a school and there is a woman wearing a bright orange vest who will walk out into the middle of the road and stop the traffic. That is her job. She is the crossing guard and she stops the traffic whenever a child needs to cross the road to get to the school. Have you seen crossing guards at your school?

When I was a kid we had crossing guards too, but they weren’t adults. They were kids from the school. The oldest kids. The 6th graders. At the end of my 5th grade year, I was among those chosen to be a crossing guard for the next year. Before the end of the day, we would all go to the office and we would get an orange belt to put around our chest. Something like this. And we would get a long pole with an orange flag on the end. And then we would walk to our particular corner with the 6th grader who was showing us how to be a crossing guard. I was very excited and proud to be a crossing guard because it was an important job to help keep everyone safe.

Over the last few weeks we have seen how baptism is a sign that reminds us of all kinds of things. It reminds that we are adopted as God’s children, washed clean of our sins, made a part of the church, and that we are given new life in Jesus. Well when Jesus was baptized the Holy Spirit came down upon him. We say he was anointed by the Holy Spirit. To be anointed is to be marked, usually with oil, for a job. In the Old Testament priests and Kings were anointed with oil to demonstrate that God had appointed them for their jobs. So baptism is like the sash I wore as a guard or the vest you see people where today. In baptism we are marked for a job. Paul says, “As God’s chosen people … clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience.” Our job is to be loving and kind like Jesus was so that when people see us they see what Jesus is like.

So I would like to give you this and ask if you would like to do a job during the worship service each week over the next few weeks. Paul says to clothe yourselves with compassion which means caring for others. So would you be willing to help the deacons collect the offering? You see part of the money we give to the church goes to help people who are in need. It is a way the whole church together cares for others. So if you wear these when you help take the offering we will all remember that we are anointed and marked by our baptism for a job – to be loving and caring like Jesus.
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[End of Children’s Sermon]
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The other night several of us watched the HBO documentary, “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality.” Bryan Stevenson is an attorney who founded the Equal Justice Initiative which advocates on behalf of the poor, the incarcerated and those on death row. He has won 5 cased before the Supreme Court, some of which have led to the curtailing of the death penalty. He has defended numerous death row inmates, many of whom he has proven to be innocent.

The movie features Anthony Ray Hinton, who served 30 years on death row after being wrongfully convicted.[1] When he was arrested, he told the police officer that he didn’t do anything. The officer replied that that didn’t matter and that there were five things that were going to convict him: he was black, they had a white witness who said he shot him, a white prosecutor, a white judge, and an all-white jury. There were only two pieces of evidence against Hinton: the gun used in the robbery and murder was the same type of gun owned by his mother, and the testimony of the witness The prosecution, however, did not demonstrate that the gun owned by his mother was the actual gun used in the murder and there was a recording of the police officers coercing the witness to give the testimony he gave. So, basically, Hinton was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit without any evidence against him because a white justice system needed to convict a black person for the crime. It mattered more that a black person was convicted than that the right person was convicted.

After 18 years of sitting on death row, Hinton contacted Stevenson to take up his case. Stevenson had nationally recognized ballistic experts prove that the gun used in the crime was not Hinton’s mother’s gun. A test that should have been run right from the start and would have exonerated Hinton within days of his arrest. But Attorney General after Attorney General, for 12 years, refused to look at the case again. Finally after more than a decade of litigation, in which court after court, refused to overturn the verdict, the Supreme Court granted Hinton a new trial. At the new trial the judge finally dismissed the charges. After 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, Hinton commented that not one Attorney General, not one Judge, not one Senator, or Governor, or Representative, not one government official said the simple words, “I am sorry.”

This may seem like an irrelevant introduction to a passage that begins, “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” We would be wrong, however, to assume that Paul is encouraging us to ignore our present, social, political and economic reality in favor of our personal, individual eternal lives. In Paul’s theology our present and eternal realities are not mutually exclusive. Rather, our eternal reality, our heavenly reality is what should shape our present reality.

Notice how race and ethnicity pops up in this passage, seemingly out of nowhere. Paul says in verse 11, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all.” Societies throughout history have always been tempted to divide the world between an “us” and a “them.” Jesus confronted a Jewish society that saw Gentiles as lesser than and unworthy of God’s love and mercy. Paul confronted Jewish Christians who insisted that to be truly Christian one must become Jewish and so maintain that division. He did so in a world in which the Romans divided everyone between Romans and barbarians. Added to the ethnic divisions you also have the perennial social divisions – slave and free, rich and poor.

Racism in the United States has been a persistent legacy, passed on from generation to generation, because it was central to the founding of the country. Each new territory that eventually became a state was created only after removing the indigenous peoples from the land by killing them, cheating them out of the land, deporting them, and/or confining them to reservations. The equality and unalienable rights declared for all in the Declaration of Independence were actually only meant for white, land owning men. If we think we have now extended that definition to include all women and people of color, we are blind to the ways in which our racist and patriarchal legacy continues to shape us and our institutions.

I can’t say much about the various countries many of you come from, but do not most nations have similar divisions? The detention camps on the US border are mirrored by the “internment camps” for the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang province in China. India has its caste system. I would wager that each country has its own form of an “us” and “them.” Some of us might be part of the “them” here in the United States and / or in your country of origin. It is part of our fallen human nature to seek power and security by defining an in group and keeping all others at arm’s length. And as nationalistic political ideals proliferate around the globe, we are seeing this instinct turning into more and more blatant forms of discrimination and oppression.

But when Paul calls us to “set our hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God,” he calls us to set our hearts on the Kingdom of God and the truth that Jesus is now Lord over all nations of this world. In chapter one Paul reminds us that all powers and authorities were created by and for Christ and that in Christ God is reconciling all things to himself. When we look at Christ we are to see him drawing to himself people from every nation, language and tongue and joining them together into his body, the church, and making one new humanity in which “us” and “them” has no place.  And so when we look at Christ we are compelled to turn our gaze to where Christ’s attention is focused, and that is on the world he came to save.

According to Paul to set our hearts on things above is to take up our calling as God’s chosen people. Paul frames his ethical discussion of how we are to live in the world with baptismal imagery of dying and rising with Christ. We are not to live by the ways of the earthly kingdoms and cultures. We are to put to death “whatever belongs to our sinful nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust and greed.” We might think Paul is only talking about personal ethics here, but he goes on to call us away from anger, rage, malice, slander and obscene speech. Paul calls us away from a culture shaped by bigotry and hatred of others “since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”

 Rather, as God’s chosen people, marked out and anointed through our baptism as God’s agents and ambassadors in the world we are to “clothe [ourselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” We are to be those who are gracious to others, forgiving others and ready to seek forgiveness, because we have been welcomed into God’s family and kingdom through grace. Knowing and experiencing the love of God, “over all these virtues” we are to “put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity”. Being chosen by God doesn’t set up a new dichotomy of us over against them. Rather it creates a people who are called to be with and for everyone, just as Christ came to be with and for the world. We are called to proclaim the good news that you too are loved by God.

I began this sermon with the story of Anthony Ray Hinton not only to lift up one instance of institutional racism and social injustice, but to emphasize that we cannot separate our social and political ethics from our personal ethics. Not one person apologized to Hinton either publically or privately. The injustice he suffered was not just social and political, it was personal for him. We can’t love our neighbors individually and not love them socially and politically and economically. To seek the Kingdom of God and to call Jesus Lord is to love our individual neighbors and to seek public and social justice. It is to put to death our institutional and public sins as well as our individual and private sins so that we can put on our new selves which are being “renewed in knowledge in the image of [our] Creator.”

Over the past several weeks we have looked at all the ways baptism reminds us of the grace God showers upon us. By grace in baptism we are adopted as his children and made heirs of the Kingdom with Christ. By grace our sins are washed away and forgiven. By grace we are joined to the church, God’s people, the body of Christ and so brought into a new community. By grace we joined to Christ so that we might die to our old, sinful selves and be brought into a resurrection life. But God sheds all this grace upon us for a purpose. He anoints us in baptism so that as his chosen people we might carry on Christ’s mission in which by word and deed we proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord over all, that his Kingdom of peace and justice is coming, and all people, regardless of race or ethnicity, class or gender, are invited into his fold. Paul calls us to set our hearts on Christ in heaven so that our lives here and now are shaped by the love of Christ for all people. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

God of power and love, you raised Jesus from death to life,

resplendent in glory to rule over all creation.

Free us and the world from our sin and brokenness

that we might rejoice in his peace,

glory in his justice, and live in his love.

Unite all humankind in Christ Jesus, you Son,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.



[1] “Anthony Ray Hinton Exonerated After 30 Years on Death Row,” Equal Justice Initiative, https://eji.org/anthony-ray-hinton-exonerated-from-alabama-death-row.

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July 21, 2019 Guest preacher
(No online sermon this week.) There is no audio for this sermon.
July 14, 2019 Remembering Our Baptism: What We Have
(Romans 6:1-11) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Did you know that we won the World Cup? The world cup is when soccer teams representing countries from all over the world play against each other to see who is the best. Last week while we were worshipping here in church the United States’ Women’s Soccer team played in the championship game against the  Netherlands. And we won. The United States won the World Cup. Now I say “we” but I was here at church, and you were here at church, and I don’t think anyone here today was in France where the game was played. And I am absolutely sure that no one here is a soccer player on the women’s national team. So how can I say that “we” won the World Cup? Well, the women who play on the national team represent the nation. They are the nation’s team. So when they win, the nation wins. So if you are a citizen of the United States, you can say, “We won the World Cup.”

We have seen over the past weeks how baptism means a lot of different things. It is a sign that we are adopted as God’s children. It marks us as a part of God’s people, the church. And it is a sign that we are washed clean of our sins. Well it means even more than that. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says, “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … [and] just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too may live a new life.” Paul says that baptism is a sign that we died with Jesus on the cross and that we were raised with him in his resurrection. But how can that be? Were you alive when Jesus’ was? Have you ever lived in Israel where he lived? How could it be that we died and rose again 2,000 years ago.

Well just like the national soccer team represents us as a country, so Jesus represents us as his people. We can therefore say that we died and rose with Jesus even though he died and rose again two thousand years ago way over in Israel. And so that means that just like we share a victory with the Women’s soccer team, we also share a victory with Jesus. Baptism reminds us that Jesus won the victory over sin and death for us. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we can be sure that we will be raised from the dead when he comes again in the future. And here and now it means we can trust that God is working in our hearts so that we sin less and less and become more kind and loving people. So when you see the baptismal font you can remember that in Jesus we share in his victory over sin and death.  
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[End of Children’s Sermon]
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We in the church have a problem with sin. There are many reasons why faith in Christ has declined over the last several hundred years in the West, but my guess is that one of the biggest reasons people today are turned away from Christ, Christianity and the church is the fact that we Christians don’t know how to handle our own sinfulness. A study by the Barna group found that a large majority of Millennials who don’t attend church characterize Christians as judgmental, hypocritical and insensitive to others.[1] We proclaim a gospel of love and grace yet appear to others to be self-righteous and blind to fact that we don’t practice what we preach.

C.S. Lewis once said there are two errors when it comes to demons. “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves … hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”[2] I think the same goes for sin. When we as individuals or the church ignore our own sin or try to cover it up, people see through us and we become hypocrites. But if we pay too much heed to sin, then we become judgmental and self-righteous. Often, however, we pay too much attention to the sins of others while trying to deny or cover up our own sins. In so doing individuals become self-righteous hypocrites and the church is shown to care more about its own power than the gospel it proclaims. Perhaps if the church lived up to the gospel we preached more people would listen.

As Christians we must deal with sin appropriately for we live in this space between being forgiven and the time when we will sin no longer. To live up to the gospel we proclaim is not to live without sinning and then deny that we do sin, but to live honestly and with a healthy respect for the power of sin but in the confidence that Jesus has overcome that power. In his letter to the Romans Paul points us to our baptism to help us do this.

So what is the nature and power of sin? There may be other ways to think about the power of sin, but let me suggest three aspects of the power of sin. First, the power of sin is death. At the end of this chapter Paul says “The wages of sin is death.” That might sound like a legal statement, that when we sin, the rightful judgment we receive is death, but in verse 20 he says that “Those things,” by which he means living in impurity and wickedness, “result in death.” Death may be the just penalty for sin, but it is also the natural result of sin. And so death is the nature of sin’s power. Sin works against the fullness of life.

When we sin against someone, we do not honor them fully as an image of God. We deprive them of an aspect of goodness and life. We thus, in a way, contribute to their dying. When you steal from someone, you take away from that which sustains them. When you dishonor someone, you destroy part of their reputation. When we abuse someone, we take away part of their dignity, we dehumanize them and thus cause them to die a little. Of course murder is the epitome of sin’s power of death. What we often fail to realize is that sin’s power is a double edged sword. When we sin against someone else, we not only diminish their life, but we diminish our own. When we sin, we dishonor the One who made us and so we act against our own creation. When we sin, we tarnish God’s image in us and so we become less of what we are supposed to be. When we sin, we diminish ourselves as we diminish the life of another and so each of us dies a little.

The power of sin as death exhibits itself in many ways. All of which are a diminishment of life. But there is one way the power of sin always exhibits itself; sin leads to exile. As those created in the image of the Triune God we are not fully human or fully alive unless we are in community. The biblical story is thus one in which sin not only leads to death, but also to exile. To sin is to turn away from God, the source of life and thus to separate yourself from God. The same happens when you sin against someone else. You break trust. You rupture the relationship and thus your life and the life of the one you have sinned against are diminished. Exile is a form of death and always a part of the wages of sin.

So, first, the power of sin is death and exile. The second aspect of the power of sin is that sin has a tendency to trap us and enslave us so that sin leads to more sin. When you sin against someone, you are faced with a choice of continuing in that sin or seeking forgiveness. If you lie to someone, you either have to continue lying which will inevitably lead to more and more lies, or you have to fess up and tell the truth. If you continue lying to someone, you will likely need to start justifying what you are doing by telling yourself that this person deserves to be lied to. You start thinking of them as a fool, and what fool doesn’t deserve having the wool pulled over his eyes. Likewise, when you treat someone unjustly, when you steal from them or keep them from having what they deserve, you will likely begin to speak about them in a derogatory manner. You have to dehumanize them in order to justify your sin against them. Whenever a political leader begins using racist language or labeling whole groups of people as evil or dangerous, you can bet that he or she is doing so to justify some form of injustice and oppression. When you sin against someone, sin can become a power over you that leads you to sin more and more. Paul encourages us to “no longer be slaves to sin” and to “not let sin reign in your mortal body.”

So the power of sin is death and it enslaves, and third, Paul is also talking about how the power of sin was amplified by the law. Paul argues that the law, instead of leading people toward righteousness just pointed out how people sinned. He says in chapter 7 that sin “seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment [not to covet], produced in me every kind of coveting.” So if you live under the law, the power of sin has more and more opportunity to exert its power because the law suggests to you more and more ways you can sin.

So is death inevitable from sin? Is there no escape? Earlier I said that when we sin against someone we have the choice of continuing in that sin and likely compounding that sin with more sin, which thus leads to more and more death, or to admit our sin and seek forgiveness. To admit your sinfulness, however, is also a form of dying. To admit you are at fault means to recognize that you have become less than you should be. You have dehumanized yourself by dehumanizing another. To admit this is to humble yourself, to give up some of your honor and pride. It also means that you accept the consequences of your behavior and since the consequence of sin is some form of death, seeking forgiveness means submitting to the power of sin. It means submitting to some form of death.

But it is when you submit to the power of sin that sin loses its power. Remember that part of the power of sin is that it entices you into more and more sin, but rather than leading to more sin and death, seeking forgiveness frees you from this cycle. You no longer have to compound your sin. Instead you can treat the person you dehumanized with love, and if they have forgiven you, with gratitude. In doing so you are no longer diminishing yourself, but you are living into the fullness of life. Seeking forgiveness, seeking grace, is thus a mode of death and a resurrection. While the law led to death because of sin, grace leads through death to greater life for yourself and the other person.

The same goes for when you forgive someone who has sinned against you. To forgive someone is to take upon yourself the hurt and the dehumanization they have caused you and to respond not in kind, not in more dehumanizing behavior, but with love. Forgiveness thus calls us to die a little. It calls us to absorb the diminishment of life the other has caused us. But again this kind of death leads to new life – both for you and the person you are forgiving. Instead of demanding that they receive the full consequence of their sin, you grant them pardon. Now this does not mean that forgiveness entails dismissing all consequences. If the person has stolen, forgiveness doesn’t mean that they don’t have to pay restitution, but it does mean that the exile of sin is overcome. Forgiveness restores the person back into a right relationship with you. It thus overcomes death and restores life. Offering forgiveness, offering grace, like seeking forgiveness, is also a mode of death and resurrection.

Forgiveness is thus a forgoing of the law and an option for grace. The law, you see, demands that the wages of sin be paid, but grace bypasses the law in order to overcome the power of sin and death. And God’s grace was made known in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. You see, on the cross and through his resurrection Jesus, as the Son of God who became human represented both God and humanity in this dance of forgiveness and seeking forgiveness, of death and resurrection.  As the representative of all humanity and the one human who did not sin, Jesus could represent humanity before God in all of humanity’s sinfulness and undergo the wages of that sin, which is death, for all humanity. As the Son of God, he represented the Trinity and submitted himself to the death that comes through the act of forgiveness. In chapter 5 Paul says, “just as the result of one trespass – the sin of Adam - was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.”

Through the cross, then, Jesus brings about a new situation for humanity. His death and resurrection was the victory over sin and death. Paul says, “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all. But the life he lives, he lives to God.” And since he is our representative, just as the women’s soccer team is our representative, we share in his victory. Paul says “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” “In the same way,” Paul continues, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

So how then are we to recognize and deal with the power of sin, but not yield to it? The power of sin need not dominate us, but yet we must recognize that we still struggle with sin. The new situation is sort of like becoming a citizen of a new nation. If you become a citizen of the United States, the laws and customs of your former country no longer apply to you. The courts of that country don’t have jurisdiction over you. But, you may continue to live in the ways of your former country and culture out of habit, or maybe even out of preference, but as a citizen of the United States, you are free to live in a new way. Likewise, sin no longer reigns over those in Christ, but we may sometimes continue to sin because we have been so habituated to sin.

But Paul says, “if we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” Because we are assured of resurrection, because we have already died and been raised with Christ, we are freed from the power of sin and thus we are freed to forgive others and to seek forgiveness when we sin. We no longer have to fear any diminishment of our life which may come from admitting our sin. We no longer need to hold anything over others, but we can freely forgive them. Because Christ has overcome sin, the cycle of sin is broken for us.  Whatever form of death we experience by seeking forgiveness or forgiving others has already been taken up into Christ’s death and overcome in his resurrection. Such death holds no power over us because we now we will be raised with Christ.

As the sign of our union with Christ, baptism reminds us of what we have. In baptism we have the grace of God enacted in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and thus the grace of God enacted in our lives because we are in Christ. Having died with Christ and having been raised with Christ, we thus have freedom from the power of sin and death because we have the promise of resurrection and new life.

“Therefore,” Paul concludes in verse 12, “do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master because you are not under law, but under grace.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence

All powerful and loving God,

in Jesus Christ you turned death into life,

and defeat into victory.

Increase our faith and trust in him,

that in him and through him

we too may triumph over sin and death

by living under grace,

in the name of Jesus

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.



[1] Barna Group, “What Millennials Want When They Visit Church,” Barna Group, March 4, 2015, https://www.barna.com/research/what-millennials-want-when-they-visit-church/.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Fontina books, 1942), 9.

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July 7, 2019 Remembering Our Baptism: What We Are
(Titus 3:3-8) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] When I was growing up I remember that we had to do something every Saturday night without fail. Can you guess what that might be? What would my mom want three young boys who always ran around a lot and who liked to play sports and hike in the woods and play in the creek in the ravine near our house to do every Saturday night? … Take a bath. We probably had to take a bath once or twice during the week, but we for sure had to take a bath on Saturday night.

So why do you think it was so important that we took a bath on Saturday night? Why not Friday night or Tuesday night? Why was Saturday night so important? … Because the next day was Sunday and on Sundays we went to church. My mom wanted to make sure we were clean and presentable for church on Sunday morning. People take baths or showers regularly because they just like to stay clean, but they often make sure they take a bath or shower before something special – like going to a wedding, or to someone’s birthday party, or to church.

In his letter to Titus the Apostle Paul says that Jesus “saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit … so that … we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” We have talked about how baptism is a sign that God has adopted us as his children and that it is a sign that we are members of the church, God’s people. Baptism is also a sign that Jesus washes us of our sins. But he doesn’t just forgives us of our sins just because. He washes us of our sins so that we are ready for something. He washes us of our sins for eternal life. He washes us of our sins we are ready to live with God forever. So when you see the baptismal font, you can remember that God washes us of our sins so that we can live as members of God’s people, as his adopted children for eternal life.
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[End of Children’s Sermon]
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Paul begins our passage this morning saying, “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities.” Passages such as this and Romans 13 have been misused since the age of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, to suppress criticism of Christian rulers and to maintain the position of the rich and powerful over the poor and the vulnerable. Paul, however, is not talking about Christian rulers and authorities. He is talking about the Roman Empire. The same empire whose official, Pontius Pilate, had Jesus crucified. The same empire that was beginning to oppress the Christian churches during Paul’s lifetime. Paul is thus speaking about how Christians ought to live in the public sphere under the rule of a tenuously tolerant and often hostile government.

Many Christians today believe that we in the United States live in a similar situation. Peter Wehner in an article in The Atlantic, contends that the 70 percent of white Evangelicals who support President Trump support him mainly because they believe Christianity is under attack by the culture as a whole, and particularly by the liberal left.[1]

While I think the premise that Christianity is under attack in the West is debatable, it is certainly true that we live within an increasingly secular culture we might call post-Christian that is ambivalent towards Christianity. There are areas and pockets of antagonism toward Christianity. One must ask if that antagonism is directed toward Christianity itself or some expressions of Christianity. And I think indifference and annoyance are more common stances held toward Christianity as a whole. The premise also fails to recognize how much of our culture and our institutions still benefit from the many years Christianity was held in a favored position within our society. All this, however, begs the question how is it that we as Christians are called to live within our post-Christian, increasingly secular world?

Paul reminds Titus and the churches in Crete of their baptism to encourage them to live faithfully within a pagan world. Paul begins with what seems to be an introduction to a lesson in ethics. “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.” Basically, he seems to be saying to be quiescent, compliant and kind. Don’t rock the boat and play nice. But if we continue, we will see that his advice is much deeper and radical than that.

Paul then compares the life he calls the people to with the life they used to live. “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” From Paul’s other letters, it is obvious that Paul is here describing the life of those living in the pagan world before they come to know God in Christ Jesus. Paul characterizes the Gentile life as foolish because a life of wisdom is a life lived in and under the ways of God. Paul thus does two things. First he sets up a contrast between life lived in obedience to God and the life of those who live under the rule of pagan rulers and thus pagan gods. The one is a life of peace, consideration, gentleness and goodness towards others; the other is a life of malice, envy and hatred because one is foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.

Second, Paul subverts the authority of the pagan rulers because he calls us to be subject to them in obedience to God. The authority of the pagan rulers is only that which is granted to them and tolerated by true God and not the pagan Gods. Our first and foremost allegiance is thus to God alone.

In verses 4-7 Paul turns to base his ethics on his theology as he so often does. He lifts up the sign of baptism to ground his ethical injunctions in the acts of God. First he points to baptism as a sign that in Christ our sins have been washed away and forgiven. “When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth.” The first thing to remember in order to live a peaceable and considerate life within a hostile environment is that we have not earned our salvation. While others may continue to live “enslaved by all kinds of passions …  with malice, and envy and hatred,” we don’t have anything over them because we were not saved by our own righteousness. God forgave our sinfulness, the same sinfulness others may still have, and washed us clean of our guilt simply because of his love. We can therefore live within a hostile environment with grace, because we have experienced grace ourselves. Because God responded to our malice and envy and hatred with grace, we can respond to the malice and envy and hatred of others with grace. We can forgive because we have been forgiven.

Second, Paul reminds us that in our baptism we are not only washed for rebirth but also baptized by the Holy Spirit for renewal. We are not just forgiven by God’s grace, we are changed by God’s grace. If we do live more peaceably and lovingly with others rather than with envy, malic and hatred, it is again not due to our own efforts but to the Holy Spirit within us. This reminder of our baptism casts us back into the arms of God when we face the adversity of our culture. Rather than confrontation with the culture, this calls us to seek the grace of God that will enable us to “always be gentle toward everyone.” As I said in the children’s sermon, God forgives us and washes of our sins so that we might live in a new way, so that we might have rebirth and renewal. Of course Paul urges us to put our own efforts towards being considerate and gentle towards others, but we can rest in the fact that God has promised to lead us in this effort through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

So Paul reminds us of the two means of our salvation – the washing of rebirth and our renewal by the Holy Spirit, which lead to the purpose of our salvation and the third signification of baptism. In verse 7 he says that God has saved us “So that … we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”  Two weeks ago we saw that baptism was a sign of our adoption as sons of God and therefore we are heirs of the world. I argued that, as co-heirs with Jesus, God is restoring humanity to our original vocation as stewards of the earth. To be an heir is to stand to inherit an estate. In Christ, our inheritance is the world so our vocation is to learn how to care for and manage our inheritance as God’s stewards. Baptism reminds us of our adoption and thus humanity’s vocation to be stewards of the earth.

One might be tempted to read this passage up to this point in terms of personal ethics. We as individuals are called to be nice and compliant. By mentioning that the purpose of our salvation is to make us heirs, however, Paul does two things. Frist, he makes it clear that this whole discussion is about public ethics, not individual, private ethics. It is about how we as the children of God, citizens of the Kingdom are to live in the public sphere here in now as we wait for our inheritance and hope for the coming Kingdom. This brings us back to verse 1. Paul is talking about living under the one true King, while also living under a pagan emperor.

Second, he keeps not only the means of our salvation, but also the purpose of our salvation squarely in the hands of God and his grace. If the purpose of our salvation is to be heirs, than we are to live always in expectation of a coming gift. It is by grace that God forgives us. It is by grace that he is working to renew us. And it is by his grace that we will receive what he has promised. God did not have to adopt us. He did not have to make us heirs. Our inheritance is not our right by birth, but only by grace. It is a gift.

By the baptismal sign of washing we can live peaceably, lovingly, and considerately in the public sphere because we stand under God’s grace by which we can forgive others. By the baptismal sign of our being renewed by the Holy Spirit, we can trust in God for our ongoing renewal. We don’t need to depend on our own reserves of patience or love, but we can cast ourselves onto God’s grace and seek his presence within us. And finally, by the baptismal sign of our adoption we can trust that what God has promised will be given to us as gift. We do not have to fight for our inheritance. We do not have to enter any culture war, or any political war, or any personal wars because Christ has already won the victory over all that stands opposed to God. Because Christ rose from the dead and reigns in heaven, we can wait patiently and peaceably for the gift of our inheritance.

In his article Wehner quotes artist Makoto Fujimura who encourages Christians to think about our stance within culture in terms of culture care rather than culture war. Fujimura says, “Culture care is an act of generosity to our neighbors and culture. Culture care is to see our world not as a battle zone in which we’re all vying for limited resources, but to see the world of abundant possibilities and promise.” God has appointed us heirs not so that we can fight a turf war, but so that we can begin engaging with the world in ways that envision and point to the coming Kingdom. This enables us to approach the culture in terms of “grace, beauty, and creativity” rather than “antipathy, disdain, and pulsating anger.”

I would add that this also enables us to live in the public sphere in freedom rather than in fear. Fear shackles us and drives us to be alternately defensive and then offensive as we stake out, advance, and protect our claim to some form of turf. Knowing that the world will be gifted to us as our inheritance means that we don’t have to win out over anyone. What may look like the advance of darkness is only temporary, a fading shadow. Instead of responding to and fearing the shadow, we are free to seek and play in the light of Christ. Instead of being driven by malice, envy and hatred, we are free “to be peaceable and considerate,” “always … gentle toward everyone,” and to “devote ourselves to doing what is good.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Almighty and everlasting God, you have willed to restore all things in your beloved Son, our Lord and King. Grant that the people of the earth, now divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under the gentle and loving rule of Christ. Remind the church of the baptism of the washing of rebirth, our renewal in the Holy Spirit, and our adoption so that we be might living testimonies of your coming Kingdom of peace. In the name of Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit One God, now and forever. Amen. 



[1] Peter Wehner, “The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity,” The Atlantic, July 5, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/07/evangelical-christians-face-deepening-crisis/593353/.

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June 30, 2019 Remembering Our Baptism: Where We Belong
(Ephesians 4:1-16) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] This morning I have a project for you. I have all these slips of paper that Miss Molly and Miss Elise are passing out. Here you can each have one. I would like everyone to take a slip of paper and write their name on it. We will collect them during the praise songs. Then what I would like you to do is to take each piece and you can glue it together to make a circle. Then you take another slip and you make another circle connected to the first. If you keep doing that you will eventually have one long paper chain. So after we sing our songs you may go to the table over there and Molly and Elise will help you make a name with all the slips of paper. But first I want you to help Molly and Elise write the names of everyone who is missing today, like Ruby and her grandparents, and the names of all the children in the nursery and the adults in the nursery on a slip of paper. That way everyone in the church will have their name written on one of the links.

So this chain you make will be like the church. There is one chain with many links just like there is one church with many people. With a chain each link is important. If one link breaks or is missing, the chain breaks apart. The apostle Paul says that Jesus gave the church all kinds of different people with different jobs – apostles, prophets, pastors and teachers – so that they could help each person in the church learn how to help others. He said that we are all supposed to work together serving each other and that’s how we will grow and be the church that Jesus wants us to be.

So Jesus gave us all to each other, but he also gave us a sign to remind us that we are all part of the church, and that sign is baptism. Each of these slips of paper could also be something like baptism. We will each have our name on a slip of paper so when we see the whole chain we will remember that each one of us is an important part of the church, and the church is not the same without each of us.
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[End of Children’s Sermon]
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Where do you belong? Of course the Sunday school answer is to Jesus and in the church. I hope this sermon will help us understand and experience what that simple answer means in deeper and more profound ways, but to begin, where else do you belong? To your family, hopefully. To the firm or business or organization you work for? Do you belong to your department at the University? Do you belong to a nation – the United States, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, India? Maybe you still belong even if you have permanently left? Do you belong to a professional association? A local gardening club? A knitting club? A model airplane club? Do you regularly volunteer someplace where you feel you belong? Perhaps a more important question than where do you belong is what does it mean to belong?

Almost 20 years ago in his book Bowling Alone Robert Putnam documented the declining rate of participation of Americans in a wide range of civic organizations. People have been participating less than in the past in political parties and movements, in religious groups and volunteer organizations, and in unions and other fraternal organizations. More and more people are bowling alone. Putnam was particularly concerned about the effect this had on our democracy. If people are not meeting together and working on common things together on a civic level – even if it t is just bowling together on a team in a bowling league – than people are not developing the necessary skills of negotiation, team building, compromise, and so on that are the basic civic skills of a democratic society. Basically, if we don’t belong together we won’t work together, particularly with those who hold different opinions. Perhaps the growing partisanship in the US congress and the population as a whole proves that Putnam was prophetic.

Putnam blamed this disintegration of civic involvement on technology, particularly entertainment technology. More and more people, he argued, stayed at home to watch television or search the web rather than joining a bowling league. This too appears rather prophetic. Now it seems that entertainment technology has not only crowded out civic engagement, it has developed new forms of pseudo community. We have friends on facebook and snapchat. People follow us on twitter and Instagram. Now our civic engagement often occurs on Facebook and Twitter. But no matter how many friends you have on Snapchat or followers on Twitter, saying you in some way “belong” to any such virtual community is a pale imitation of what it means to truly belong to something. In a world in which a deep and true sense of belonging is becoming less and less common, the church is called to be a place of full and rich belonging.

This is so because our belonging is based upon nothing else than the foundation of all existence itself, the being of the one God –Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It therefore comes to expression in nothing less than the true bond of belonging – love. Paul begins this section with a statement that exemplifies his ethics: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”, When it comes to ethics, Paul always encourages the churches in the same way. He tells them to be what you are, to live in such a way so that you exemplify that you are the body of Christ.  He therefore begins and ends this section by focusing on love. In verse 2 he says, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Likewise he concludes the passage mentioning love twice beginning in verse 15, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of [Christ]. From him the whole body … grows and builds itself up in love.” Perhaps I should say Paul’s encouragement is not only to be what you are, but to become even more of what you are. You are the body of Christ, he says, therefore love one another so that you become the mature, fully united body of Christ.

Love is what binds the body of Christ together and so Paul calls us to humility, gentleness, patience, truth and mutual service to one another. This stands in contrast to what binds people together into community in our society. When I join a political party it is a common ideal that binds me to the community. When I am hired by a corporation, it is my particular skill set or knowledge set that joins me to the community. When I join a club, it is an interest in a particular hobby or activity that joins us together. What joins the church together, however, is not just a set of beliefs, but a way of life. We might call it faith, but faith in the biblical sense includes faithfulness. The faith of the Christian church is a way of life and love is the central characteristic of that way of life.

In contrast to the belonging the church offers, the Indi rock band, Fleet Foxes, captures our culture’s despair about belonging in their song “Helplessness Blues.” They sing, “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see /And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”[1] Our culture teaches our children that they are all unique individuals, and exceptional individuals at that. Everyone must be above average or else you won’t get into the top tier university, and if you don’t get into the top tier university, well then your life is ruined. Fleet Foxes, however, sees through this false expectation. They see that life isn’t all about being an exceptional individual, standing out from everyone else. This may lead you to some form of success, but, as the saying goes, it is lonely at the top. But if you fail to live up to the expectation of being an exceptional individual, you will find that it is also lonely at the bottom.

Fleet Foxes sees through our culture’s ideal of the exceptional individual and they long for something beyond, something more. They long for community. “I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.” Sadly, however, they fail to envision true community. Perhaps they don’t believe that love is really an option so they settle for a bleak utilitarianism. They just want to be useful somehow and dream of being a cog in a grand machine. They would be happy to be some non-descript unit, doing some non-descript work, as long as they knew they were a part of something greater than themselves.

Within the body of Christ, however, each person is unique, yet they remain a vital part of the collective. Paul says in verse 11, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and the teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” The leaders in the church are tasked with equipping others. They are not to hoard power or flaunt their own special abilities, but they are to increase the power of others by encouraging everyone’s unique abilities. In turn, the members of the church are to use their abilities in service to others. This is love in action. Each person is loved and valued so that they might love others in turn.

Paul mentions several things that often unite people – faith, knowledge and teaching. As I noted earlier, so many of the things we belong to are centered around such things – political parties unite around ideals, professional associations unite around shared knowledge, gardening clubs unite around a common activity. But Paul knows that what truly brings people together and holds them in unity is love. He therefore tells them to “speak the truth in love.” All these ideas and knowledge that bind people together crack under pressure without the binding glue of love.

Love is what binds the body of Christ together for love is what binds the persons of the Trinity together. Paul, you see, bases his ethics on his theology. In verse 4 he points us to the other foundational aspect of our unity, the Trinity. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” In the same breath Paul mentions each person of the Trinity – one Spirit, one Lord (who is obviously Christ), and the Father – and unites them all in “One God.” This God is “over all and through all and in all.” The Trinity is therefore the foundational form of all existence. Anything that exists exists because God is over it and through it and in it. Things exists only if they are in some form of communion with the God who is in himself a community of persons.

We are not meant to be isolated individuals – exceptional or not. Nor are we meant to be nameless, merely useful cogs in an impersonal bureaucracy. Like the persons of the Trinity, we are meant to be interdependent. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit all acting and being in conjunction. Likewise, we are meant to be unique individuals who are not fully ourselves without being a part of the community. We are a community that is less than itself without all of its members. God is not God without the Son or the Spirit or the Father. God is only and ever God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Earlier we saw that Paul teaches that the members of the church are interdependent – each serving one another. By pointing us to the Trinity, Paul also demonstrates that the church is dependent on the Trinity itself. The church is one body with one hope, one calling, one faith and one baptism, because it is dependent upon the one God who is one Spirit, one Lord and one Father. The different individuals within the church are united by the love of God into one shared destiny, one purpose, one way life, and by one rite of initiation – baptism. We are thus united not only by our love for one another, but more fundamentally by the will of the Triune God.

As I said in the children’s sermon, baptism is the sign that each individual is a part of the whole, a member of the body. But there are not many baptisms, there is one baptism. Baptism is not about our individuality, it is about how each individual is incorporated into the body of Christ. It is about the grace and work of God in our lives. Each of the things Paul points to in verses 4 through 6 highlights the corporate nature of the church rather than the individual and our dependence on the grace and work of God rather than our independence.

When I apply to a university, I am accepted or rejected based on my grades and my test scores. My position within a company is based upon my ability to perform the job. The one faith Paul speaks of is that faith that assures us that we are incorporated into the body of Christ and his kingdom not because of anything we have done or anything we are, but because of the grace of God. And so in baptism it is not the individual’s hope or calling or faith that is primary. Rather the individual is incorporated into the one hope of the church for the coming kingdom of God, into the one calling of the church to bear witness to Christ and his Kingdom, and into the one faith of the church which is not only what we believe about God, but how we are to live in faithfulness. The individual is incorporated into a way of life. To be incorporated into this one hope, calling, and faith is therefore true belonging because it is to be incorporated into the life of God. And to be incorporated into the life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is to be united with the source of all that is.

My favorite piece of our baptismal liturgy is when I place my hands on the person and say, “For you Jesus Christ came into the world; for you he died and for you he conquered death. All this he did for you before you knew anything of it.” This is particularly poignant when I say this while holding an infant. This is the epitome of the truth that we are saved by grace alone. God claims the infant before he or she even has the cognitive capability to know anything about God, let alone to believe in him. God is our Father who, just like our parents, loves his children and counts them as part of the family before they have done anything to earn his love. But these words also hold true for any adult baptism. No matter how advanced our cognitive abilities, no matter how much we ourselves love God, no matter how deep our faith or how strong our hope, “we love because God first loved us.” Let us all remember our baptism so that we know where we belong. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

<Silence>

Gracious God and heavenly Father, we that you that you make us new persons in Jesus Christ through grace alone and for incorporating us into the one faith, one hope, and one calling by one baptism. Bless us and strengthen us daily with the gift of your Holy Spirit. Unfold in us the riches of your love. Deepen our faith. Enable us to live holy and blameless lives as witness to your coming kingdom. Through Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever, amen.



[1] Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues,” Helplessness Blues, Sub Pop, 2011.

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June 23, 2019 Remembering Our Baptism: Who We Are
(Galatians 3:23-29) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] I have some books here, but these aren’t just any books. They are special to me. This one, of course, is my Bible. This is my journal in which I write some of my thoughts. This is one of my favorite books. I don’t want to lose these books so in each one, on the first page, I have written my name. If I leave this book somewhere, I want anyone who finds it to open it up and see that this book belongs to me. And hopefully they will be kind and return it to me.

Over the next few weeks we are going to be talking about baptism. Baptism is something like God putting his name on you. Baptism is when we pour or sprinkle water over someone’s head. In some churches people climb into a pool of water and they are dunked all the way under the water. But either way, when we do this, the pastor says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

The Apostle Paul says, “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The name God puts on us is “Child of God.” Baptism is a sign that we are children of God. Baptism reminds you and tells everyone that you belong to God.

So this morning I have these name tags and on each one I wrote, “Child of God.” You can each have one. You can write your name on it, like I am doing, and then you can stick it on you so that it can be something like baptism. You can remember that you are a child of God.
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[End of Children’s Sermon]
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Once upon a time there was a king who took his son to the highest point in his kingdom. He showed his son all of his kingdom and said, “One day, all this will be yours. You will be king and ruler over all this land. This is my promise to you.” “But Father,” said the son, “I am young and I do not know enough to be a ruler and king.” “Come,” said the King, “I will instruct you.”

And so from that day on the King began to give instructions to his son. He gave him lessons in how to manage the farmlands. He taught him the laws of the land. He told him stories of what it looked like to be a just and merciful ruler over the people. He also gave the prince a ring that demonstrated to everyone that he was the King’s son and that he had been given authority. The prince thus began to travel throughout the country doing the king’s businesses. He went to the villages to collect taxes from the people and to settle small disputes between neighbors. As he traveled he made sure the bridges and the roads were maintained in good order. The prince did all this because he believed in the promise his father had made him. He believed that one day he would inherit the kingdom. He therefore listened to his father’s instructions so that he would be ready for that day.

This is obviously a fairy tale, but it is the same story that is the kernel of the biblical story, and so it is the kernel of our faith. Hear the story again:

Once upon a time God took Abraham out of his land and he brought him to the land of Canaan. He showed him the land and made him a promise. “I will be your God and the God of your children. I will make you into a great nation and this will be your land. And one day all nations will be blessed through you.” And so God made Abraham’s descendants into a great nation. He freed them from slavery in Egypt and he called them his son, Israel. He gave them the land of Canaan as an inheritance and he also gave them instructions on how to live in the land. He taught them how to manage the land and what it means to be a just and merciful and merciful people, so that all the nations might see and learn what it means to be just and merciful.

But this story did not go as did the fairy tale. The son in the biblical story failed on three counts. First, Israel failed to follow the instructions. They did not live justly, or love mercy, or walk humbly with God. Instead they worshipped other gods. They made alliances with pagan kings and put their trust in the military powers of their neighbors. And, instead of caring for the weak and vulnerable in society, they allowed the rich to prey upon the poor. Israel failed to live by the Torah, the law, God’s instructions. And so instead of the blessings of the inheritance, they received the curse of exile.

Second, Israel forgot their purpose. God promised to bless Abraham and his descendants, but he did so in order to bring his blessing to all the nations. Israel was to be an example to the nations of what God intended to do for all the nations. But Israel received God’s blessing, instead, as a mark of their own unique place and position with God. They turned the law from being a guide of how to live to a mark of their position with God. Following the law became a means to distinguish themselves in order to set themselves over and above the other nations. Yes, God had intended the law to be a means to distinguish Israel from the other nations, but not to set them over against the nations, but to be an example to the nations.

These first two failures, then, led by Jesus and Paul’s time to the third problem. Israel’s failure to live by the law led to renewed and more determined attempts to keep the law and to additions to the law. This renewed focus on the law enhanced the second problem as well. It heighted the need for Jewish people to keep themselves separate from and untainted by the Gentiles. In sum, the third problem or failure was a shift from trust and faith in God and the promises he had made to a trust in the law.

In his letter to the Galatian church Paul demonstrates how Christ resolves all three of these failures. Earlier in the chapter Paul quotes Genesis saying, “Abraham ‘believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’” (3:6). Paul thus demonstrates that our life before God is established by faith in God, not the law. In the fairy tale the Prince believes the King that he will one day inherit the kingdom. That is the reason he lives the way he does. He follows the Kings instructions because he believes the promise. The instructions serve the promise. They do not define or establish the relationship between the Prince and the King. Likewise Paul says in verse 18: “For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise, but God in his grace gave it [the inheritance] to Abraham through a promise.” He then sums this all up in verse 26, “So in Christ you are all sons of God through faith.” In Christ God overcame the first problem and brought people back to him through faith.

We are to put our faith in Christ because he resolves the other two problems. So in Christ God also resolves the second problem and he brings his people back to their purpose. In verse 29 Paul points to the kernel of the story, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” The NIV says we are children of God in verse 26, but the word in the Greek is sons, and this is significant because it was the son who received the inheritance and that is the kernel of the biblical story. Abraham and his seed are heirs of God.

But this is just a repetition of the original story of humanity. God made humanity in his image in order that they might be stewards over the earth. As image bearers humans are symbols, marks, of God’s authority and reign over all things. God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1:26). And after he made humanity he said to them, “Fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (28). The story began with humanity poised to become princes who ruled over the world. But of course that story didn’t go well either. Human sin brought humanity the curse of death and exile rather than the blessings of life with God as God’s stewards.

But God determined to set the story right first through Abraham to Israel, and then through Christ for all nations. The promise God makes to Abraham is that in him God would begin returning humanity to its original purpose. Israel was to be a son of God who was given a piece of land over which to reign. Canaan was Israel’s inheritance just as the world was supposed to be all of humanity’s inheritance. In and through Christ, then, God overcame the second failure in which Israel forgot that God intended to do for all humanity what he did for Israel. In forgetting to live by the promise God had made to Abraham, Israel forgot that they themselves were God’s promise to humanity.

And so Paul says in verse 26, “in Christ you are all sons of God through faith” and in verse 27, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ.” You see in that day slaves and women did not inherit the property of the father, only the son. In Christ, however, through faith, the promises God makes to humanity are open to all humanity. The promise is not just to the Jewish people, but to the Greeks and Gentiles and Americans and Koreans and Chinese as well. Neither your nationality nor your ethnicity nor your keeping of the Jewish laws make any difference. Likewise the promise is for people of all classes. Your status in society makes no difference. It does not matter if you are a slave or a free, a student or a professor, rich or poor, citizen or sojourner, the promise is for all. And finally, gender is no longer a factor. All children of God, sons and daughters, are heirs in Christ. All humans are made in the image of God and so all humans are meant to become stewards of the earth, co-rulers with Christ Jesus.

So in Christ Paul shows how God has first turned his people back to faith in him and in his promises rather than in the law, and second, that he has turned God’s people back to their vocation – they are heirs and thus stewards of the world. But just as God chose Israel to be an example and a promise to all the nations, so God has now chosen the church to be the means by which he will extend and restore the same blessing and the same vocation to all humanity.

But there was yet the first failure of God’s people and of humanity; the failure to live by God’s instructions. In this passage Paul demonstrates that Christ also resolves this problem. In verse 27 he sums this up by saying, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” To clothe yourself with Christ is to be dressed as he was, it is thus to live as he did, to walk in his ways, to follow in his obedience.

This issue of the Law, however, is complicated. Because Israel failed to live by it, the Law served an additional purpose alongside its original purpose. In verse 24 Paul says that “the law was our guardian until Christ came.” As in the fairytale the law was meant to serve as a guide for God’s people to show them how to live into the promise. It was to show them how to live as faithful stewards of the land, to train them so that they could rule over their inheritance when the time came.

In failing to live by the law, however, the law ended up serving a second purpose: it demonstrated Israel’s sinfulness. The law thus became an agent of the curse rather than a blessing. Paul says in verse 10, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’” Rather than being a guardian the law became a guard. Instead of being a guide to right living, the law served to demonstrate God’s people’s guilt. Paul says in verse 23, “we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.”

Christ, however, undoes all this and returns the law to its proper place by doing two things. First, Jesus takes on the curse of the law for us. Paul says in verse 13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Second, after freeing us from the curse of the law and the power of sin, Jesus gives us the Spirit that enables us to live in his ways. In verse 14 Paul says, “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”  In 4:2 Paul says, “Because you are his sons, God sent his Spirit of his Son into our hearts. And in chapter 5 Paul shows how the gift of the Spirit enables us to live by the law: In 5:14 Paul says, “For the entire law is fulfilled in the keeping of this one command, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ … so I say, walk by the Spirit.”  And in verse 22, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.” The Spirit leads us to live so as to fulfill the law. All this Paul sums up by saying that if we are baptized into Christ we are clothed with Christ.

And that, finally, brings us to baptism. What does all this have to do with baptism? This is supposed to be a sermon on baptism, after all. After God promised Abraham to make a great nation of him and to give him the land of Canaan, he gave him a sign that would remind him of God’ promise, the sign of circumcision. Circumcision was the sign of God’s promises to Abraham and thus to the Jewish people, but now that the promise is for all God’s children – Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female – a new sign was needed. And that sign was baptism.

Baptism is thus a sign of who we are, that we are children and heirs of God. It is a sign for of our adoption for we are baptized into Christ – the one and only true and natural Son of God. No one else is a natural child of God – neither Jew nor Christian nor male nor female, neither slave nor free. In baptism God demonstrates his act of pure grace by placing his mark on each one of us. He counts us as part of his family saying, “You are my child. You are mine.” And so baptism is a sign of God’s promise: “You are my heir whether a daughter or a son. And one day, all this will be yours.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

<Silence>

Eternal God, at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan’

You proclaimed him to be your beloved Son.

Grant that all who have been baptized into his name,

Being made co-heirs with Christ,

Maybe be filled with your Spirit and clothed with Christ

So that we may be proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior

And serve him faithfully as stewards of the earth.

We pray through the same Jesus Christ

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

One God, now and forever. Amen.

 

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June 16, 2019 Guest Preacher
(No online sermon this week.) There is no audio for this sermon.
June 9, 2019 Divine Encounters The Spirit of the Nations
(Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do you see all those signs hanging over there? They all have the same verse, John 3:16 written on them but in different languages. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” There is one in French and Spanish and Hindi and Korean and many more. Now some people might think that the world would be a better place if we all spoke the same language. Why would God make a world where some people can’t understand each other? Wouldn’t it be better if we were all the same?

Today we are celebrating Pentecost. That is the day when God sent his Spirit on the disciples to enable them to tell the world about Jesus and that God loves them. Well Pentecost was a Jewish feast and Jewish people from all different nations who spoke all different languages came to Jerusalem. And when the Spirit came on the disciples they were able to speak in all these different languages. God could have made all the people from the different nations understand the disciples’ language, but he did the reverse – he enabled the disciples to speak in all the different languages. That tells me that God likes it that people speak all different languages. He doesn’t want us to be all the same. He wants us to speak different languages and have different customs. So when you hear John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,” remember that God loves all the people in the world with all their different languages and customs and traditions.
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[End of Children’s Sermon]
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When I was young, my mom made me take piano lessons. Now I did not like taking piano lessons very much. I would practice every day, but my mom had to make sure that I did. I would complain sometimes, but I ended up taking lessons for five years. I finally convinced my parents to let me take guitar lessons instead. But that didn’t work out so well either. I only took guitar lesson for about two years. So now I can’t play the piano or the guitar.

But I can read music. And I can sit down at the piano and play at least the tune of a song. In the end, it was really good for me to have taken piano lessons all those years ago.  Being able to read music and plunk out a tune helps me plan our worship services each week. Although I didn’t like it at the time, I think my parents knew what was best for me when they made me take those piano lessons. As people get older, usually about the time they have kids, they begin to realize that their parents were actually a bit wiser than they thought. I think the same is true the more and more we know God. The more we know God the more we know how good and wise are his ways.

Our Old Testament lesson begins, “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech” (Genesis 11:1). If you only read the story of the Tower of Babel you may not realize how out of place that sentence is. Take a look, if you would, in your Bibles to chapter 10. Go ahead and scan chapter 10 and can anyone see why the first verse of chapter 11 seems out of place? “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.”

Chapter 10 looks like a just a boring list of names of nations. It is sort of like one of those genealogies found earlier in Genesis and later in Numbers, but with the names of peoples and nations. That may have been interesting to people in that time and culture, but what relevance does it have for us today? Well, if you read closely you see that chapter 10 is a celebration of the fact that after the flood humanity began to spread out into all the world and to divide up into different nations, peoples, and languages. Verse 5: “From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language.” Verse 18: “Later the Canaanite clans scattered.” Verse 20: “These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.” Verse 31:  “These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations. These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.”

If you look further back in the story, you can see that this spreading out and division of humanity is the fulfillment of God’s blessing. In Genesis 1 God blesses the first humans saying, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” After Noah and his family exit the ark after the flood, God repeats this blessing: “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.”

When you read chapter 10 it seems that all is now, after the terrible flood, finally going according to plan. Noah’s three sons have children and they have children and the human population begins to grow and spread out from Egypt over to Babylon. The peoples divide and new clans and languages and peoples are formed. The surprise, however, comes in chapter 11: “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.” We go on to read how the people settle on a plain in Shinar and conspire to build a city with a great tower “so that we may make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Lest we be scattered. The NIV translates this as “otherwise we might be scattered,” but I like that lesser used English word “lest.” It highlights the contrast. It means “so that something not happen.” The people build the tower for two reasons: to do one thing, a positive reason, “so that we may make a name for ourselves,” and to prevent another thing, thus a negative reason, “lest we be scattered, so that we may not be scattered.”

If you continue reading Genesis you will see that God counters both of these reasons. God scatters the nations in our text to counter the second, negative reason. But he also counters the first, positive reason in chapter 12. God calls Abram and says to him, “I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

God’s desire is to bless all the peoples on the earth, but humans seem determined to turn away from God’s blessing. As you read chapter 10 it seems like humans are doing all right by themselves. They are living into God’s blessing, spreading out over the earth, diversifying, developing new languages and cultures and ways of being human. But then we read, “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.” The author of Genesis disrupts the chronology of the story and takes us back in time before chapter 10. The Tower of Babel jerks us back in time to show us that humans needed God to intervene in order for us to live in to his blessing. Humans on their own sought to maintain uniformity, to stay together, and to “make a name for themselves.” But God intervened to scatter us and to make a name for Abram. The spirit of the nations is that we humans believe that we know better than God.

So why is it that we think we know better than God? Why do we act counter to God’s desire to bless us. This harkens back to my sermon series from Lent, but I think fear is what often drives us away from God’s blessings. The people at Babel seek to stick together because they fear difference. We fear difference. If someone is not like us, then they are a danger. We don’t know how they think. We don’t know how they might behave. We don’t know if we might offend them without meaning to. We don’t know them and so we don’t trust them. Instead of seeing difference as an opportunity to learn about others, to see the world a bit differently, to maybe learn better ways of being in the world, we assume that difference means danger and inferiority. The drive to maintain boundaries around those who are like us is ancient and grows deep in the human psyche.

Maintaining the uniformity of those around us is one way we think we keep danger at bay, maintaining a name is another way. To seek a name is to establish a reputation. The people at Babel seek to be seen by others as powerful, as those you shouldn’t mess with. Politicians, celebrities, academics, and entrepreneurs all trade on the power of their reputation. Many in the past year have seen their power fade and their fortunes threatened by revelations of sexual harassment due to the MeToo movement. Their names, their good reputations have been shown to be false and they have lost jobs and power. People seek to have a name for the sake of power, but in another sense, to seek a name is an attempt to defy death. If you have a name, it can live on after you die. Having a name doesn’t have any actual power against death, but psychologically humans have sought to ward off death by creating a name for themselves.

Humans on their own act out of fear, trust in themselves, and so miss out on God’s blessing. God’s blessings come to us not as a reward for having faith in God, but as a natural consequence of putting our trust in him. To trust in God is to believe that he truly knows what is best for us, and that he loves each of us, and each of our clans and tribes, in our differences. It is to trust that the way he made human beings, with all our differences, is a good thing, a blessing. If we put aside our fear and trust in the goodness of our differences, nations can then bless each other with the various gifts they each have – various styles of music and food and dress, different ways of looking at the world, even diverse ways of knowing and understanding who God is.

God himself, you see, is not mere uniformity. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the early church saw fully, perhaps for the first time, that God was not just the one Father, but also Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And so in the story of Babel, God works to ensure that humans will scatter and so enjoy the blessings of diversity. In our text from Acts, the Spirit of God works again to enable humans to beunified in their diversity.

Last week we read the story of Jesus’ ascension from Acts 1. Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus told his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Once again God desires that his blessing not be kept localized. He wants his blessing to be shed abroad from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. The story of Acts is the story of how the church carries the good news of Jesus from Jerusalem, to all Judea, to Samaria, throughout the Roman Empire, and finally by Paul to Rome, or the “ends of the earth.”

A couple of weeks ago we saw how the plot in Acts also involves a social expansion as well as a geographic expansion of the good news. The early church proclaimed the good news of Jesus first to fellow Jews, then to Samaritans, and then to the Gentiles. Much of the conflict in Acts revolves around the decision that the Gentiles need not become Jewish to be Christian. The Spirit of God at Pentecost demonstrates that unity need not entail uniformity. It is no small thing that the Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in all the different languages instead of having all the visitors to Jerusalem be able to understand Aramaic, the disciples’ main language.

The spirit of the nations, humanity on its own, seeks safety in sameness and uniformity, but the Spirit of God at Pentecost and at the Tower of Babel show that God is the true Spirit of the nations.  God wants all nations to live in his blessing – united under one Name, the name of Christ, but each living and worshipping in their own diverse ways.  Friends, do we live with the spirit of the nations, driven by the fear of those who are different to maintain uniformity, or do we live with the true Spirit of the Nations celebrating and loving one another in our differences, accepting all people as those made in the image of God, and taking up the call to be witnesses of Christ to the ends of the earth. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

God our creator, earth has many languages,

but your gospel proclaims your love

to all nations in one heavenly tongue.

Make us messengers of the good news

that, through the power of your Spirit,

all the world may unite in one song of praise;

through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.

 

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June 2, 2019 Divine Encounters: The Eyes of the Heart
(Ephesians 1:15-23) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon]

This morning I have this book to show you. It is a mystery book called the case of the slippery flippers. What is special about this book is it comes with this special magnifying glass that helps you find the clues. So if we turn to this page you can see that there are four boxes. Now we can’t see inside the boxes but below we can see labels that tell us that one box is filled with stuff for the beach, one with stuff for winter, one with stuff for the garden and one with stuff for school. So if we take the special magnifying glass, we can actually see inside the boxes. So which box is this? Is it for the beach, for winter, school, or the garden?

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesian he prays that God would give them the Spirit of revelation. That is, he prays that the Spirit would help them see things in the world that people normally can’t see. The Spirit of revelation is sort of like the magnifying glass, and so is the Bible. When we read the Bible we learn more and more about who God is and what God is like. That helps us see the world in a different way than if we didn’t know God or what God is like. The Bible and the Spirit of revelation, like the magnifying glass, help us see what some people in the world can’t see. They help us see that God loves us and that God loves everyone. That helps us see that it is better to love others than to be selfish and only think about ourselves.

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[End of Children’s Sermon]
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I have several friends on Facebook who are forever posting screenshots of their local radar. Of course they do this whenever it is about to rain. They also post a screenshot of their weather app whenever it is too hot or too cold to their liking. At times it is as if they think that Mother Nature’s goal in life is to make their lives miserable by sending them bad weather.

One might say that my friends’ complaining reveals a certain form of narcissism – maybe they think the world does or should revolve around them. But in a sense, I think it goes a bit deeper than that. I think it reveals a basic belief about the nature of the world, that strife and competition are fundamental to the structure of the world. Mother Nature is an antagonistic force which all too frequently ruins our weekend plans. Such a view of the world has increased over the last couple of centuries, perhaps in tandem with or due to the rise of the theory of evolution, at least as popularly understood. Just as animals have evolved over time due to the “forces” of the survival of the fittest and natural selection, so the physical world is composed of various forces that act upon and against and over each other. Within philosophy Nietzsche promoted such a world view which has been sustained by the post modernists like Derrida and Lyotard. This worldview, however, is not new. It is just the rebirth of pagan mythology in which the universe developed out of Chaos.

But is that the true nature of the World? Is chaos and competition and strife and antagonism basic to the structure of the universe and the very being of our existence? In our text from Ephesians, Paul prays that the Ephesians might be given “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation.” New Testament scholar N.T. Wright translates this latter phrase as, “of seeing things people can’t normally see.” If Paul means wisdom as in the Hebrew sense of wisdom, which is to live life according to the ways God made and governs the world, then Paul prays that the church be given the Spirit of knowing how to live in the world by the ways of God which we can see and the ways of God that people normally can’t see.

So how are we to see the world with the Spirit of wisdom, through the ways in which God made and sustains the world? Well, I will admit that sometimes I too can be disappointed by the timing of the rain. It doesn’t make be very happy when it is five o’clock on a Wednesday and I look out the window at my bike and the pouring down rain. But yet, I know that rain, in general, is a blessing. While I am inconvenienced and may get a bit wet or be a bit late, I can look beyond that and thank God that he has sent the rain to water the earth, making it green and beautiful and fruitful. Yet I also know that sometimes, such as now, there is too much rain. Lately rain has moved me to lament. I am saddened these days by another day of rain because the farmers are having a terrible time getting their crops planted, and there is massive flooding throughout the Midwest.

Looking at the world with wisdom is to recognize that the same system God created in order to bless us with fruitful crops is also the same system that sometimes produces floods and tornadoes and hurricanes. Looking at the world through the Spirit of wisdom helps me recognize that while there are occasional natural disasters caused by our atmospheric system, the system as a whole promotes life and abundant life at that. That is fairly obvious when it comes to the weather, but it is also true when it comes to volcanoes, earthquakes and thus also tsunamis. Recent research into plate tectonics, the moving of the continents over the surface of the earth which causes earthquakes and volcanoes, suggest that this movement of the earth’s crust is essential for life as we know it on this earth.

Researchers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology recently coined the term the Habitable Trinity. This basically posits that life on earth is dependent upon its vast abundance of water, large land masses and an atmosphere with the stability and makeup of the one we have – “all of which exchange and circulate material.”[1] I don’t understand all this and I might get some of the details wrong here, but plate tectonics seems to be responsible for much of this. The movement of the plates affects the movement of the oceans and the tides. This helps circulate the waters in the ocean and promotes the exchange of elements between land and ocean on the coasts, and the ocean and the atmosphere. The movement of the plates along the ocean floor stirs up and releases all kinds of minerals and gases which are essential for life in the oceans.

I am sure there is much more to it than this, but the point is that sometimes humans experience the world as chaotic due to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, which are all caused by plate tectonics. But without plate tectonics there would be no life at all to experience pain, suffering and death. Plate tectonics are therefore evidence that the world is not based on chaos and competition and antagonism, but on something more like benevolence.

Wisdom helps us view the world as God made it and how it is now. Moreover, wisdom also teaches me that the pain and suffering caused by natural disasters is enhanced by, and sometimes superseded by human folly and sin. We build on flood plains and in places susceptible to wild fires. For years we managed forests to suppress forest fires which has only served to create an abundance of fuel for when a fire breaks out that we can’t manage. That is human folly, but human sin, injustice, plays as big a part in the human costs of natural disasters as folly. It is the poor and vulnerable who live in the trailer parks that provide no protection during a tornado. It is the subsistence farmers who suffer most from floods and droughts as they do not have access to insurance or credit. Human folly and sin exacerbate the pain and suffering of natural disasters. Wise human societies, and just ones, implement policies and regulations that expect, prepare for, and mediate the damages of natural disasters. That is living according to the ways God made the world that we can see. That is the Spirit of wisdom.

So Paul prays that we might have the Spirit of wisdom but also of revelation, that we might see what others cannot see. When God made the world, according to Genesis 1, it says “When God made the heavens and the earth.” Heaven and earth were made to be together. In ancient thought the heavens were the place where the gods dwelt and the earth the place where humans dwelt.  Biblical scholars have shown that Genesis 1 portrays God as making the earth as his temple, with humans as his icon or image.[2] Temples were places where heaven and earth were joined together. We often think of heaven as some place far away, but according to the Hebrew world view, heaven is not far away, but another dimension outside of, around, under, and above this one. God made heaven and earth to be intertwined, but human sinfulness led to their separation. Because of human sin, God placed what we might call a veil between heaven and earth. As we have read these past few weeks from the book of Revelation, heaven and earth will be joined together again in the new age.  Revelation, seeing things people normally can’t see, is when God pulls the veil back between heaven and earth and allows us to see the deeper reality that is heaven. The Spirit of revelation allows us to see what God is doing, how the heavenly realm is breaking in to the earthly realm. Revelation is an instance of an answer to our prayer “your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.”

In verse 18 of our text Paul prays for us to have the Spirit of revelation so that we might know three things: the hope to which we have been called, the riches of God’s inheritance, and God’s incomparably great power. To have the Spirit of revelation is to live in hope. It is to see that the world was not only created for life and to sustain life, which wisdom teaches us, but that the end, the goal, the telos of the world is even more abundant life. Through the Spirit of revelation we know that the destiny of the world is the new heavens and the new earth, God’s peaceable kingdom in which the lion will live with the lamb, in which God will overcome all sin and death and evil and humanity will live directly in God’s presence. It is by revelation that we know and have this hope.

To see how the world was made and where it is going situates us and tells us how we ought to live. The Spirit of revelation thus also give us knowledge of our inheritance. We often think of inheritance as the stuff we will get when our parents pass away. Jesus and the whole of the bible teaches that the inheritance of God’s children is nothing less than the world. In Jesus’ day a son stood to inherit his father’s estate, but that meant that the son had responsibilities even while his father still lived. To ensure the ongoing viability of the estate, the son’s responsibility while his father lived was to learn how to run the estate. Think of the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son. For us to know the “glorious inheritance” of God’s people is to be assured of the coming gift of “the world” as our inheritance, but it is also a call to begin learning how to be good stewards of our inheritance. What the world does not see, but what we do see through the Spirit of revelation is that it is not the rich and powerful and cruel who will inherit the earth, but the poor, the vulnerable, and the merciful.

Paul prays that we would have the Spirit of revelation to know our hope, our inheritance and “[God’s] incomparably great power for us who believe.” He prays that we would know that power which is “the same as the mighty strength [God] exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.” And so the Spirit of wisdom and revelation reveal the same thing –the same power that created and sustains the world will also renew and re-create the world. It is the power of love rather than the power of chaos. The power that raised Jesus from the grave is the same power that enabled Jesus to take upon himself the sins of the world and to die to the powers of the world in order to overcome the powers of sin and death. To live in hope and in our inheritance is to trust in the power of love.

We see this same power in Jesus’ ascension to his heavenly throne. This is not a power of dominance over others, but a power that empowers others. Paul says in verse 22, “God placed all things under [Jesus’] feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything.” Jesus ascended and rules over all powers of the world for the church. He ascended so that we might take up our calling, that we might live in to our inheritance here and now by living in the world with the wisdom of how things were made and are, with the hope of how they will be, trusting in the power of love rather than the power of competition and domination.

You see Paul prays in verse 17 that we might have the spirit of wisdom and revelation “so that you may know [God] better, by having the eyes of your heart enlightened.” Wisdom and revelation first and foremost show us the true nature of God who can only be seen by an enlightened heart for the true nature of God, and thus the true of nature of the world he made, is love.

God of power and love,

you raised Jesus from death to life,

resplendent in glory to rule over all creation.

Free the world to rejoice in his peace,

to glory in his justice, and to live in his love.

Unite all humankind in Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever. Amen.



[1] Rebecca Boyle, “Why Earth’s Cracked Crust May Be Essential for Life,” Quanta Magazine, June 7, 2018, https://www.quantamagazine.org/plate-tectonics-may-be-essential-for-life-20180607/.

[2]See  N. T. Wright, “Space, Time and History: Jesus and the Challenge of God,” January 12, 2019, http://ntwrightpage.com/2019/04/14/space-time-and-history-jesus-and-the-challenge-of-god/; and N. T. Wright, “On Earth as in Heaven,” May 20, 2007, http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/03/30/on-earth-as-in-heaven/.

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May 26, 2019 Divine Encounters: The Paraclete
(John 14:15-27) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] There once was a little girl who liked to do things “by myself.” If she and her parents were getting ready to leave the house and her mom bent down to help her tie her shoes, she would say, “I can do it by myself.” If they tried to help her zip up her coat, she would say, “I can do it by myself.”

But there were some things she couldn’t do by herself. One day she wanted to help her dad make the pizza for dinner. She pulled up a chair next to the counter. She mixed the water into the flour. She even kneaded the dough a little bit. But when it came time to roll out the dough, she was having trouble. So her dad put his hands over hers on the rolling pin and she showed her how to roll out the dough. And another time she wanted to play a game that was on the top shelf in the closet. She pulled up a chair, but she still couldn’t reach it. Her mom came along and lifted her up so she could reach the game and bring it down.

Last week we heard that Jesus told his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” In a sense, Jesus wanted his disciples to do things by themselves. He was going away up to heaven but he wanted his disciples, he wants us to love others like he loves us. But Jesus is also always helping us. Although he was ascending into heaven he told his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans. … I will ask the Father and he will send you [the Holy Spirit] to help you and be with you forever.” Jesus went up to heaven so he wants us to love others by ourselves, but at the same time he always helps us because he gives us the Holy Spirit who is always with us.
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[End of Children’s Sermon]
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Imagine you are standing by a concrete wall and around the corner you hear someone say. “Give me your wallet. … And your keys. … And your watch.” Now how many of you imagined that you were on a street corner and that around the corner someone was being mugged? Now imagine yourself inside a building. You are still standing by a concrete wall, but down the hall there is a teenager who is obviously stressed out. Sitting next to him is his mother, obviously angry and frustrated. Further down the hall a door opens and two police officers walk out and come toward you. You look down the hall the other way and there are more police officers. Now around the corner you hear someone say, “Give me your wallet. … And your keys. … And your watch.”

Words mean different things depending on the context. In your imagination, the words I said first meant someone was being robbed. In the second scenario those same words meant that someone was being booked into a jail.

Now if words mean different things based on the context, it also means that our understanding of what people say depends on what we believe the context to be. The disciples in the gospel of John are forever asking Jesus questions as if they don’t understand what Jesus is saying. I think they don’t understand Jesus because they don’t understand the context of his words. They don’t understand Jesus because they don’t know the true context of God’s salvation.

It is Thursday night, the night of Jesus’ arrest. Jesus tries to prepare his disciples for what is ahead. He keeps telling them that he will be going away and that where he is going they cannot follow. Jesus then says, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves be will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.’ Judas then replies, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?” (John 14:21-22)

The disciples can’t understand why Jesus is going away. They can’t fathom why Jesus, the Messiah, the one who is supposed to save Israel from the Romans would go away. Nor can they understand why he wouldn’t show himself to the Romans. How is Jesus supposed to claim victory over the Romans if he goes away and doesn’t show himself to the world?

The disciples don’t understand because their context for salvation is not Jesus’ context for salvation. They think salvation will consist of a military and political defeat of Rome and a reestablishment of the Kingdom of Israel as it was under King David. This is also why they don’t understand why Jesus must die on the cross and be raised from the dead. According to their context, a Messiah who dies a tortuous death on a cross is a failed Messiah

You see, they don’t understand that the salvation Jesus brings is a salvation from sin and the power of death. They don’t understand that Jesus goes to the cross in order to take upon himself the sin that has enslaved us and separated us from God, the sin that leads to death. They don’t understand that by dying and rising again he defeats the power of sin and death, that he opens the way for God’s forgiveness of our sins, and thus also opens the way for us to eternal life. The disciples think that God’s salvation is about this world. They don’t get it that God’s salvation is a free gift of grace in which God forgives the guilt of our sins and counts us as righteous. They don’t get that it is only through faith that we appropriate this salvation and are thus assured of eternal life with God in the age to come.

Now that may explain why Jesus dies on the cross and is raised from the dead, but it doesn’t explain why Jesus must ascend into heaven and it still leaves Judas’ question unanswered. Why does Jesus only show himself to the disciples and not to the world? If Jesus came to overcome our sin and the power of death, to forgive our sins and make us right with God, and give us eternal life, why did he ascend into heaven? Why didn’t he stay and show himself to the world in order to prove that he rose from the dead?

Jesus’ words also sound confusing to us because he doesn’t seem to answer Judas’ question. Judas asks why Jesus doesn’t show himself to the world and Jesus replies, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” And even more confusing, it is almost as if Jesus is saying that God only loves those who obey him. In verse 21 he says, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father.” Doesn’t this contradict Paul’s teaching that we are saved by grace alone through faith and not by works? Doesn’t this contradict even John who writes in his 1st letter, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our since. … We love because God first loved us” (4:10,19).

Well, imagine again that you are standing beside a concrete wall and around the corner you hear, “Give me your watch. … And your wallet. … And your keys.” What is happening to the man? Is he being robbed or put in prison? Well, what if you are standing in a place that looks something like a mall. There are stores and restaurants here and there, but everyone is pulling a suitcase behind them. You turn the corner and a security guard is holding out a basket and saying to an elderly gentleman, “and your belt. … And your shoes.  … Now walk slowly through with your hands at your side.” Perhaps our problem is that we don’t have the context quite right either. Perhaps we often don’t understand Jesus because our context for salvation isn’t Jesus’ context for salvation.

The disciples are waiting for a military and political savior. But what kind of savior, or what kind of salvation are we waiting for? We expect a salvation that fits our context. With regards to salvation, our context has to do with what we believe about humanity. We in the West have accepted the Enlightenment’s definition of what it means to be human. We believe that to be truly human is to be an autonomous individual. We want to be able to say, “I can do whatever I like and I can do it by myself.” We then fit the salvation Jesus offers into our context. We tend to focus on the language Paul uses regarding salvation that is legal in nature, because that fits our individualistic context. Jesus dies on the cross and is raised from the dead in order to offer each individual person forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Now while there is truth in this, it is only one aspect of the salvation offered in Christ. We tend to ignore the things he says that confuse us because they don’t fit into our context.

You may have noticed that Jesus says absolutely nothing about dying on a cross, the guilt of our sin, God’s forgiveness, or the righteousness we have in Christ in this passage. But I contend that he is talking about our salvation. He speaks about going away, but he promises that he will not leave us as orphans, that he will send us the Holy Spirit to be with us and to guide us into all truth and to assure us of the peace that Jesus gives us. He speaks about our union with him and the Father through the Holy Spirit. Union with the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit and the peace that Christ gives – that is salvation. Salvation includes a legal pardon for our sins, but it is so much more.

Likewise, we short shift the Holy Spirit and limit the gift of the Holy Spirit to fit our context of autonomous individuality. We tend to stress that the Spirit helps us in our sanctification, in our becoming more holy, moral, and more like Jesus. The Spirit bends our wills more and more towards God so that we love God more, trust him more, and obey him more willingly. The Spirit also gives us gifts of preaching, teaching, administration, hospitality, pursuing justice, and so on so that we can serve God, our neighbors and one another. Now all that is true, but we tend to understand all that in an individualistic sense. We believe it is about what God does for me as an individual. But again, Jesus says nothing of this in this passage.

Rather, the gift of the Spirit in this passage counteracts our individuality. Jesus teaches us that the Spirit joins us intimately to God and to Jesus and unites us with them. This union with God and Jesus through the Spirit is at once more general and deeper than just our sanctification and the gifts the Spirit gives us. It is deeper because the Spirit unites us with and so makes us a part of the very life of the Trinity. This is the very opposite of individual human autonomy. The gift of the Spirit is more general because the Spirit is given to us not primarily for the benefit of each individual.  Yes, the Spirit helps us and leads us into all truth, but we are joined to God and Jesus by the Spirit, not to be better individuals, but to be joined to God’s mission in the world. Our salvation is not primarily about us as individuals; it is about joining us to God and to his mission.

You see, in answer to Judas’ question of why he doesn’t intend to show him to the world, Jesus affirms that he will show himself to the world. He says, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to make our home with them.” Jesus intends to show himself and the Father to the world through us. Jesus repeats this teaching several times in this section of John. Last week we heard Jesus say, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (13:34-35). Later he says, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (15:8). And still later Jesus prays, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you sent me” (17:20-21). The Spirit joins us to Christ who is joined to the Father so that that the world may come to put their faith in Jesus. Jesus sends the Spirit not only to make us become better people, not only to give us gifts for ministry, but to join us to God so intimately that we are joined to the very purposes of God – namely that he sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save the world through him.

Union with Jesus and the Father is thus the heart of salvation and the context through which we can understand all of Jesus’ teaching about salvation. The Enlightenment has taught us to believe that to be truly human is to be an autonomous individual, but the biblical truth is that humans were created to be in communion with God. Adam and Eve’s autonomy, their becoming a law unto themselves, is the very epitome of sin and rebellion against God. Union with God, and through God union with one another, is what makes us fully and truly human.  If then we have union with God and each other here and now, salvation is not just for the age to come, but also for this world. Salvation is not just being made right with God, it is living out of God’s communion with us. Obeying God doesn’t earn us our salvation, but it is part of our salvation. To obey God is to live our salvation.

Jesus words thus make sense: Jesus says, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father.” Yes, it is true that God loves us first, but when we enter into an intimate loving relationship, any loving relationship, that relationship becomes a relationship of give and take, back and forth. God loves us first, but if we love God and obey his commands, then God will return our love and we will be able to experience God’s love in deeper and more profound ways the more we love him and obey him. “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Salvation is an every

Salvation is an ever growing and deepening relationship with God and therefore with all God loves, that is, God’s people, and the world. In the next chapter Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If anyone remains in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit. … Now remain in my love” (15:5,9). The union we have with Jesus and the Father through the Spirit becomes the source of our lives and the core of our salvation. Salvation is something that we will live more and more into in the age to come, but we begin living out of our salvation now. As we live in communion with God we participate in his mission to the world by loving one another and bearing witness to the world through our love of others. If we obey God’s commands and love our neighbors and even enemies as ourselves, we demonstrate that we love God and that God’s love has come to live in us, that the Father and Jesus have made their home in us. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Silence]

Almighty God, you sent your Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save the world through him. Give us the same love which you have for the world that we may love one another as Jesus has loved us, that we may love our neighbors as ourselves, that we may love even our enemies as Jesus has taught us, and in doing so may we demonstrate that we love you above all else. Through Jesus who died but rose again and ascended to reign with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever Amen.

 

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May 19, 2019 Divine Encounters: Commensality
(Acts 11:1-18) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] In my experience children seem to have a very good sense of when something is fair or unfair. Let’s play a game. I will say something for pretend and you tell me if it is fair or unfair. Fair or unfair: all people with brown eyes could have two cookies after church and those with blue eyes could only have one? Fair or unfair: girls may have either a cookie or a piece of cake, boys may have a carrot stick or a piece of broccoli?

So what is wrong when something is unfair? Well, how do you feel when something is unfair for you? Just think about that for a second. What’s it like for you when something is unfair? Well, when something is unfair you feel less important than the other person, right? When something is unfair it is often because some people are getting special treatment and others are being treated badly for no good reason. What that says is that the people getting special treatment are better than the others, but if there is no good reason than it just isn’t true. It is unfair.

Jesus once told his disciples, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” To love another person is to treat that person as special. Everyone, you see, is special because everyone was made by God and is loved by God. Being fair to others is one way to love others and to show that everyone is special. And when we love others, we show them that we are Jesus’ disciples.

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[End of Children’s Sermon]

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The other day on campus I passed by some basketball courts as I rode my bike home. On one court a group of four white students played while on another a group of six black students played. I wondered why they couldn’t join together for a five on five game of full court basketball. It reminded me of a story I had heard on NPR that morning.

David Green interviewed John Stokes who was a student leader of a protest movement for school desegregation sixty seven years ago.[1] Stokes was one of the plaintiffs in the Brown verses the Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court declared that “separate but equal” education facilities were unconstitutional, thus ending legalized segregation of white from black students. Green ended the interview by noting that segregation of schools still persists, and reciting a quote made famous by Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[2]  He then asked Stokes, “How long do you think this will take?”

Stokes replied, “A long time. It’s not easy. It’s never going to be easy. Because we can make any law we wish to make, but it has to be in the confines of a person’s heart. It has to be a moral issue, it has to be how a person feels in his heart about another human being.”

Of course, recognizing that it is a moral issue and an issue of the human heart doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make laws about things. Having laws that outlaw various immoral things is one factor that may help change people’s minds over time. It does not, however, ensure that people’s hearts will change. So what does it take to change a heart?

In our text from Acts Peter’s heart and the hearts of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem are changed. This scene is therefore one of the key scenes in the development of the plot of the story in Acts. Before Jesus ascends to heaven in chapter 1, he tells the disciples that they will be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Luke foreshadows the trajectory of the story. The gospel will spread geographically from Jerusalem, to Samaria, and then to the “ends of the earth.” The story ends with Paul preaching the gospel in Rome, the center of Luke’s world. And since, as we say, “All roads lead to Rome,” once the gospel reaches Rome it can then be disseminated through all those roads to “the ends of the earth.”

This geographic expansion, however, is matched by an ethnic expansion (see Acts 8). Soon after the church is scattered into Samaria because of persecution, Philip begins preaching to the Samaritans who were considered religious mongrels by the Jewish people. When the leaders in Jerusalem hear about Philip’s ministry, they send Peter and John to Samaria to check things out. Philip then speaks to a God-fearing Ethiopian. After he explains how Jesus is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, the Ethiopian asks to be baptized, and Philip agrees.  In our text the leadership of the church in Jerusalem comes to grips with the fact that “even to the Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life” (11:18).

The most profound shift, however, is not geographic or ethnic in nature. The most profound shift happens in the human heart. And that, as John Stokes says, takes a long time. As I rode home the day I saw the white and black students playing on different courts, two blocks later I passed another court on which a group of black and white students were playing together. Now of course I know that the snapshot of those two groups of segregated students playing basketball doesn’t represent the totality of their lives – they may have all kinds of interracial relationships - but the images of that day represent the fact that the shift to full inclusion is taking a long time. It is ongoing and it goes in fits and starts.

Our text today thus represents what is or has been happening in the United States since the Civil War – a long slow process that I believe, in spite of current circumstances, is heading toward fuller integration and inclusion.

Our text begins, “The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God.” You would expect that the church in Jerusalem and Judea would be ecstatic that the gospel was advancing, that the Word of God was being preached and accepted even by Gentiles. But verse 2 says, “So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him.” The believers in Jerusalem rather than being ecstatic about the spread of the gospel are upset with Peter, but not because Peter is preaching to Gentiles. They are not upset that the Gentiles are believing the gospel, or even that the Gentiles are being baptized. The Christians in Jerusalem and Judea are upset with Peter because, as it says in verse 3, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

After the Civil War in the United States, the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution were passed guaranteeing citizenship to anyone born in the United States regardless of race and protecting the voting rights of all men of all races. Women weren’t granted the right to vote until 50 years later. These amendments enshrined racial equality into the law, but that did not mean equality was the law of the people’s hearts.

Over the last one hundred and fifty years black Americans have been struggling against the myriad of ways whites have attempted to ensure the continued separation of white and black societies. Segregation laws were passed that touted “separate but equal” public facilities. Voting laws restricted voting disproportionately among black Americans. Banks restricted capital to black individuals and businesses. Real Estate companies and city and county zoning laws insured whites and blacks were kept separate. While on the surface, the mantra was “separate but equal,” the reality was that separation was the means to ensure inequality and to institutionalize white privilege.

Our text reflects a similar dynamic within the early church. I have always read the story of Peter’s vision as a metaphor for how Gentiles should be allowed into the church. Peter sees a sheet coming down out of the sky with all these unclean animals and a voice tells him to kill and eat. When he objects, the voice says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (9). I have always thought that God was symbolically showing Peter that it was OK for Gentiles to become Christians, that Gentiles were no longer “unclean.”

The shock to the church in Jerusalem, however, is not that the Gentiles are believing the gospel and becoming followers of Christ. The shock is that Peter eats with them. There are indications throughout the Old Testament that the nations would one day come to Zion and worship the God of Israel. It was therefore not a huge stretch for Peter and the other Jewish Christians to believe that the Samaritans and then the Gentiles would come to worship Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. They would therefore be happy with a church that maintained a “separate but equal” policy with regard to Jews and Gentiles. Sure, Gentiles could be Christians, but they must always be Gentile Christians separate from Jewish Christians. But “separate but equal,” as American history demonstrates, is just a veiled attempt to maintain the superiority of one group over another. Of course Gentiles could be Christians, but Jewish Christians would always be God’s first born son.

What God revealed to Peter in the vision was that in Christ the laws and codes that had kept Jews separate from Gentiles had been done away with. The vision is not a metaphor, but a literal teaching that Peter could eat pork. But because he could eat pork it meant that he could and must eat with Gentiles. This is what is called commensality, eating at a common mensa or table (mesa in Spanish). As Jesus’ ministry demonstrates, commensality meant much more in his society than in ours. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners not just as a sign of religious inclusion: eating at a common table meant social inclusion. Peer is called to accept Gentiles not just as followers of Christ but as brothers and sisters in Christ.

I have been struggling all weekend with what to say this text means for us today, particularly here at Hessel Park Church. The obvious answer is that this text confronts us with our own prejudices. Are we in anyway racist? Are we excluding some group of people not from the religious table but from our actual table? That could be people of a different ethnicity. It could be black Americans. It could be people of a different class. Maybe this text calls us to repentance. But I said to Roxann as I struggled with this, “I don’t know how to finish my sermon without being preachy.” And she said, “Don’t be preachy.”

So then I thought of how issues of race and ethnicity actually play out here at Hessel Park Church. Some of us, specifically those in the End Racism Team, are intentionally struggling with such issues. Others may be doing so individually. We may not be overtly racist, but overcoming prejudice takes actual practice, doing things and not just believing in our heads that all people are created in God’s image and so created equal and loved by God. But many of us are seeking to overcome our prejudices in practical ways. Some have visited black churches. Other have volunteered for organizations as a means of showing solidarity with others. The fact that we celebrate having members from numerous nations and cultures demonstrates that at least we as a church value people from all ethnicities.

I therefore invite you to hear three things from this text. First, this struggle is not an addendum to the gospel. This struggle is not something that must happen after one becomes a Christian. The struggle for justice is part and parcel of the gospel and what it means to be a Christian. To follow Christ and to proclaim that he is Lord is to identify yourself with the Jesus who welcomed the outcasts of society to his table. So as you seek to overcome your own prejudices, as you seek to contribute to a more just society, combatting racism, overcoming white privilege, don’t let anyone ever tell you that you are taking your focus off of the gospel. The good news is that in Jesus God is creating one new humanity in which the false divisions we as humans make are being overcome.

For points two and three, notice what it takes for Peter to eat with Gentiles. To move Peter to share a table with Gentiles, God has to send him a vision of a sheet full of unclean animals and command Peter to kill and eat. And God does this not once, but three times. God then sends three Gentiles to Peter at just that moment. He then tells Peter through the Spirit to go with him. These men tell Peter that a certain Gentile, Cornelius, has also heard from God through an angel telling him to send for Peter. Finally, while Peter preaches to Cornelius and his household, the Holy Spirit is poured out on them and they begin speaking in tongues and praising God. It takes three visions with direct commands from God, a fourth command from God, a visit from an angel, and the out pouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles to convince Peter that he may eat at the same table with a household of Gentiles.  It takes six divine encounters to bring Peter to the table.

The second thing I invite you to hear is that the human heart is slow to change. We learn from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that years and years later Paul had to confront Peter because Peter had reverted to the old practice of segregated tables. Even after the six divine encounters in our text, even after Peter eats with Gentiles in our text, he can still fall back into old patterns and practices. Paul’s letters also demonstrate that many of the Jewish Christians never did accept the truth that all are one in Jesus. In almost every letter, Paul makes the same argument: the gospel is that all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, are received in Christ by grace through faith. The human heart is slow to change. Paul has to keep making the same argument over and over again. The struggle toward justice is not only long, but it goes in fits and starts. Sometimes that struggle plays out in society as a whole, sometimes in the confines of our own hearts.  

The third thing I invite you to hear is that the Spirit of God is at work. Human hearts are hard. It takes a long time for the moral arc of the universe to approach justice, but it is the Holy Spirit who is bending that arc and melting hearts. Therefore do not lose heart. The God who created this universe is the same God who has given you new life in Christ, and he is the same God who is refashioning the universe in Christ through the Spirit, bringing it closer and closer to his kingdom of peace and justice. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence

Transforming God, in Jesus you show us the shape of love in his justice and his peace. Transform our hearts to love others as Jesus loved us so that we might bear witness to his coming kingdom in which people from every nation and language and ethnicity will be joined together as one family to the praise of your glory. We pray through the same Jesus who lives and reigns with you, one God now and forever. Amen.



[1] “65 Years After Brown v. Board of Education: ‘It’s Never Going To Be Easy’,” Morning Edition (NPR), accessed May 17, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/05/17/724234168/student-plaintiff-looks-back-on-1954s-brown-v-board-of-education.

[2] King paraphrased the words of Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister and abolitionist.

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May 12, 2019 Divine Encounters: In the House of the Lord
(Psalm 23; John 10:22-30) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] I’ve noticed that sometimes you all like to run around inside the church after the service, and sometimes before. This is a great church to run around in, isn’t it, because it’s got the nice long hallway? If you promise to come right back here and sit down and listen to the rest of the children’s sermon, would you like to run once around the church? Go ahead. [Are you always on the run?]

Sometimes in life we run around a lot. We have to go from school to shopping to this activity and then that. But if we spend our lives running all the time, we can sometimes miss things. If we slow down, maybe we will notice something beautiful, maybe we will see something interesting, or smell something nice. So why don’t you go around the church again, but this time go a little slower and see if you notice anything. See if there is anything you missed when you went around the first time. [What would life be like if you were to slow down? The children return bringing a bag].

Would you like to see what is in the bag? [pulls out a rock]  It looks like just an ordinary rock. But if you flip it over, look!  There are some fossils of some fish in this rock. These fish are thousands and thousands of years old, maybe millions of years old. Isn’t it amazing that we could find something so rare and so old?  If you were hiking in the woods and all that you cared about was getting to the end, if you were in a hurry, you might miss seeing this rock. But if you were taking your time and noticing things, then you might find a treasure like a rock with some ancient fossils in it.

Psalm 23 says, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”  When Jesus ascended into heaven he promised to always be with us. So we believe that through the Holy Spirit Jesus is always with us like a shepherd who watches over his sheep. But if we are always running around, if we are always busy doing things, we probably won’t notice how and when Jesus is with us. One of the times we slow down to notice that Jesus is with us is in worship. In worship we take time to be quiet and to pray so we can notice that Jesus is with us. But you can slow down any time of the day and then maybe you will begin to notice that Jesus is always with us.

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[End of Children’s Sermon]
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In our passage from Revelation John sees a multitude of people that no one could count from every nation, tribe, people and language. They lift up their voices and sing praise to God and to the Lamb. When John asks his guide who they are, he says, “these are they who have come out of the great tribulation … they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence” (7:14-15).

And so we get one of our most formative images of heaven and the afterlife.  Life after death, life in heaven, is going to be an endless choir concert in which God’s people stand before his throne and sing his praises. Is that really what eternal life is going to be like? Not even the book of Revelation supports this notion. What we have here in chapter 7 is just a snapshot of what we might see now in heaven. It is not an image of what eternal life will always be like.

Just last week we read in chapter 5 the Lamb was praised “because … with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom of priests to serve our God and they will reign on the earth” (9-10). Next week we will read of how at the end of this age – the New Jerusalem will come down from the new heavens to the new earth where God will make his dwelling with humanity and where the “people from every tribe and language and people and nation” will be priests and will reign. The eternal life that Revelation suggests is a life full of activity and purpose and meaning. We will be doing things. The difference is that we will be doing things as those who have been freed from the power of sin and death and raised to new life through the blood of the Lamb. We will be doing things with God fully present to us and dwelling with us.

Another common misconception about the afterlife is that the afterlife is the goal of the Christian life. But if the goal of the Christian life is the afterlife, why does Peter raise Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9:36-43)? If Dorcas died in Christ, if she was saved and so joined to Christ in heaven, why would Peter want to bring her back from the goal? Why would Jesus resurrect Lazarus? Why do we grieve at all when someone who is in Christ dies? If the afterlife is the goal, then we should just be overjoyed that our loved one has succeeded.

To go through life thinking that the afterlife is the goal is sort of like spending your life always running, always busy, always getting things done, always trying to get somewhere else. Many of us go through life thinking that life is all about reaching one destination after another: graduating from school, landing that perfect job, getting married, having kids, buying house. All those destinations get wrapped up in the grand destination we call success. But when we live our lives like that we become so intent on completing a task, on finishing a project, on doing things, that we easily miss the beautiful things in life. We may invest lest in relationship. We fail to take good care of ourselves. We may even miss out on some of what is most important things in life that happen here and now.

Clergy woman Judith Smith tells how she tried for years to be it all – a “successful professional, a perfect mother, a loving wife, a thoughtful and caring friend to everyone, and in my spare time be well read and committed to social justice activities.” She finally determined that this was impossible, so she took time off from work to bring some more sanity to her life. But then she found she had just replaced one kind of performance, one destination, for another. “Performing,” she said, “no longer meant doing it all. Now it meant keeping my life in perfect balance. … In leaving my job I had made a major change in the script. But my attention was still focused on my precision in following that script.”[1]

Perhaps we have suffered from this same malady in our life in general, but we can also live our spiritual lives always pursuing a “destination.” The afterlife is one “destination” we might have as Christians, but there may be others. Some might think the destination is social justice, or becoming more holy. Others might think the Christian life is about getting all the theological answers right, or evangelizing others so that they get all the answers right and get into heaven.

Smith realized that while she had changed the script of her life, the goal was still the same. What she needed was to recognize that she was pursuing the wrong goal.  “I needed to move from believing that I am defined by and valued for my performance to believing that I am defined by and valued for who I am in my deepest being.  It is,” she continues, “so simple and yet so difficult to believe that God loves and accepts us – and perhaps even celebrates us! – exactly as we are.”[2] Life, she discovered, is not about performance and attaining some destination. “I am coming to believe,” she concludes, “that there is not final destination except to continue to be on the journey and to know that every place along the way is a holy place because God is present.”[3] The goal of the Christian life, and so life in general, is to be a faithful servant of God while on the journey here and now realizing that God is always present with us. And so our goal can be realized to some extent now but also in the age to come for we are servants of God now and so shall we be in the age to come.

In Psalm 23 the psalmist assures us of these same two things: we are loved not for what we do but because we belong to God, and that that we have arrived at our destination whenever and wherever we are because God is present. This, you see is the destination of the Christian life - to be in the presence of God. The psalmist proclaims, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” Wherever we are on our journey, the Lord is always with us leading us to green pastures, guiding us to peaceful streams, providing for our daily bread. The Lord will guide us on paths of righteousness and he will even be by our side in the darkest of nights and the most difficult of times. The Lord provides for us and he watches over us. This doesn’t means we won’t experience pain and suffering and great hardship. But it does mean he will be present with us and that he will preserve us from ultimate harm. And he does all this simply because he is our shepherd, we are his sheep.

The question is, do we ever notice? Do we ever slow down enough to notice that God is with us, that Christ remains Immanuel? Do we take time to linger in God’s word so that the promises he makes to us sink in? Do we dwell on his love for us so that we know that he loves us before we accomplish anything? Do we take time to notice the ways he blesses us? Do we pause to give thanks? Do we turn to him in times of difficulty and wait upon him, maybe not for a cure or a miraculous rescue out of or situation, but for signs that “his rod and staff” are protecting and comforting us. It is only when we slow down that we can absorb the reality that we are truly loved by God as we are rather than for what we accomplish.

In the second part of the Psalm the psalmist switches imagery, but he repeats the same message. In the first half of the psalm God provides and protects us as our shepherd; in the second half he provides and protects us as a host. I have always been a bit puzzled by verse 5 “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies?”  Does this mean that God will help us defeat our enemies and then enable us to gloat over them?

The psalmist switches from the imagery of a shepherd to the imagery of a royal banquet that a King lays out for his household. The King’s provision is lavish. To prepare a table is to provide a feast. The King anoints the head of the psalmist with oil and makes sure that his cup is never empty. The King’s provision is lavish, but he also protects. Within the community the psalmist has enemies. There are those who wish him harm. But the King has honored the psalmist as one among his household who are invited to the feast. Within the psalms, and also in King David’s actual life, the psalmist’s enemies pursue him and seek to do him harm. But here David, the psalmist, proclaims that God, the King, will pursue him with goodness and love “all the days of my life.”  And so as earlier in the psalm, God is with us protecting and providing for us not by extracting us from the difficulties and dangers of life, but in the midst of adversity. Here David is assured of God’s provision and protection even in the midst of his enemies because he “will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” David rests in God because he is always home.

My hope is that at Hessel Park Church we at least try to embody the sentiment behind Psalm 23. We are not a church that has a glorious vision statement or an ambitious mission statement. We do not have hopes of exponential growth or designs of becoming a mega church. We aren’t trying to go anywhere or arrive at some destination. Our goal is to be faithful servants of God here and now. One main aspect of our mission is to be a place where people walk for a while on their sojourn. We hope that people encounter Jesus as their shepherd here whether they have been members for years, whether they have grown up in this church, or whether they spend just a few years here while in college or graduate school. We hope that people find themselves provided for and protected because they find themselves in the house of the Lord.  

This morning we are celebrating this year’s graduates: Hsien-Chih Chang, Jes DeVries, and Grace Prom. I would like to conclude by wishing them a blessing. Hsien-Chih, Jes, and Grace: I hope that during your years here at Hessel Park you have encountered Jesus as your shepherd, and known God’s hospitality as a member of God’s household. That is to say I hope you have experienced God’s protection and provision during your time here. My blessing is that you may carry that experience wherever you go in life. May you know that you are loved not because of anything you have done or anything you will accomplish, but simply because you are you. You are God’s child, a sheep of the Great Shepherd. May you therefore trust that Jesus will continue to guide you on paths of righteousness through the darkest valleys to good pasture and life giving streams. May you trust that at all times and in all places Jesus is with you and you are always at home in the house of the Lord. And so may God’s love enable you to always be a faithful servant of God whenever and wherever you are and to become the even more beautiful person God is making you to be. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence

Almighty God, you sent Jesus, our good shepherd,

to gather us together.

May we always trust in his provision and his protection,

listening for his voice and staying near to him,

until all your sheep are safely in the fold,

to live and serve you forever in the age to come;

Through Jesus Christ our Lord

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

One God, now and forever. Amen.

 



[1] Judith E. Smith, “This Ground Is Holy Ground,” in The Weavings Reader: Living with God in the World, Ed. John S. Mogabgab, (Nasheville: The Upper Room, 1993) 161-169, pg. 162.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., pg.168.

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May 5, 2019 Divine Encounters: Called as You Are
(John 21:15-19; Acts 9:1-21) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Sometimes I can feel like a sponge. Sometimes I feel so tired and worn out that I feel like I just can’t give anything to anyone anymore (takes a dry sponged and tries to squeeze it.) But when I feel the love of others, when I feel loved by Roxann, and by Evan and Elise, and by my parents, and by my friends, I feel filled up with love (pours water onto the sponge). Then I can love others.in return (squeezes out water). But, of course, after a while, I feel tired and worn out, and loving other can be hard (squeezes dry sponge). But if we know that Jesus loves us, if we are in Jesus (throws several sponges into the baptismal font), then we become filled with an endless love.

Jesus once said, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. … [and] This is my command: love each other” (John 15:9,17). The only way we can love one another is if we remain in Jesus’ love. (All sing) "Jesus loves me." (#709)
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[End of Children’s Sermon]
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Has anyone ever played the game “Never have I ever?” It is fun ice breaker that you can use to help people get to know one another. Each person takes a turn and tells everyone about something they have never done, but those who have done it must raise their hand. You might say, “Never have I ever ridden a horse,” or “never have I have been to Mexico.” I’d like to play a version of this game, but don’t worry, you will only have to mentally raise your hands. And full disclosure, I do not guarantee that all these statements are true about me.

Ready? Never have I ever pretended to have seen a movie, read a book, or seen a television show that someone is talking about. Likewise, never have I ever pretended to know about an author or an historical figure. Never have I ever laughed at a joke that I did not get. Never have I ever accepted a compliment or taken credit for something I didn’t do. Never have I ever pretended to remember someone who engages me in conversation and who obviously remembers me. Never have I ever pretended to know someone that I do not. Never have I ever let someone think I was a friend of someone who is actually just an acquaintance. Never have I ever padded my resume.

Have we all not been tempted to make ourselves look better, appear smarter, or seem more popular than we actually are? We fear not being liked or accepted or hired if people were to know how intelligent or competent or kind or funny we actually are, or rather, are not. Have we all not given an exaggerated impression of ourselves to others in order to gain approval? The real question this morning, however, is have you ever tried to exaggerate your faith or your love for God in order to assure yourself or to demonstrate to others that you are acceptable to God?

It is some time after Jesus appeared before the disciples and Thomas. Some of the disciples have gone back to Galilee.  Peter decides to go fishing and the others join him. They fish all night, but catch nothing. As they are coming in to shore they see a man looking out at them. He tells them to throw their nets on the other side of the boat. They do so and their catch is so large that they can’t even haul it into the boat. One of them proclaims, “It is the Lord!” and so Peter jumps into the water and makes his way to the shore. When the others arrive, maybe much later since Peter left them to haul in the huge catch of fish, Jesus is squatting over a fire cooking some fish and heating up some bread. He tells them to bring some of the fish they caught. But Peter goes out to the boat and drags the net in all by himself.

Have you ever wondered what Peter is trying to prove? The obvious answer is that Peter is trying to make up for denying Jesus on the night of his arrest. We often hold Peter up as a model of faith, but I wonder if we should. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Peter is the one who gets out of the boat to walk on the water. He is the one who first proclaims Jesus as the Christ. He is the one who offers to build tents for Elijah, Moses and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. In John he is the one who refuses to let Jesus wash his feet. In all of the gospels Peter is the one disciple who declares that he will follow Jesus to the very end, even to death. Peter’s action from our text makes me wonder if all of these examples of Peter’s strong faith are really examples of Peter trying to prove something about his faith.

Have you ever tried to prove your faith to others, to yourself, to God? I think we know that we can’t fool God into thinking that we have more faith or a stronger love for Jesus than we actually do. But I wonder if there is something like a placebo effect on our own perception of our faith and love when we try to convince others that we have a stronger faith in God or love for Jesus than we actually do. When we try to fool others, we end up fooling ourselves.

So let’s play another round of “never have I ever.” Again, full disclosure, only about half of these are true about me. Never have I ever agreed to volunteer for something at church that I really didn’t want to do, but I did because I was worried what others might think of me if I didn’t. Never have I ever exaggerated how often I pray or have devotionals or the length of my devotional. Never have I have pretended to have read a certain theologian or spiritual writer.  Never have I ever quoted scripture in order to make others think that I know scripture better than I do. Never have I ever let it slip that I give to a certain cause or charity. Never have I ever name dropped an author or theologian, spiritual writer or a book I have read. And finally, never have I ever confessed to committing only half of a list of sins in order to appear humble on the one hand, but also to conceal the fact that I have probably committed all of the sins on the list.  Never have I have exaggerated the depth of my faith or the strength of my love for God.

Likewise, I think the apostle Peter frequently does things and says things that exaggerate his actual love, faith and devotion. When Peter claims that he will go with Jesus to the end, he obviously overcommits as he denies even knowing Jesus just a few hours later. I look at Peter and I see someone who is insecure in their faith so needs to prove their faith, maybe not so much to Jesus, but to himself. Let me suggest that instead of holding Peter up as a model of strong faith, we should see him as someone who, just like us, tries to overcompensate for a weak faith by exaggerating his faith.

I say this not to denigrate Peter, but to point out that to hold Peter up as a model of faith is to fall into the same trap as Peter. To hold up Peter as a model of faith is to compare yourself to Peter, and that can only end up badly in two different ways. Maybe you hold up Peter as a model of faith and think you measure up to Peter, or maybe surpass Peter. Maybe you imagine yourself walking on that water all the way to Jesus. Maybe you imagine yourself sticking by Jesus all the way to the end and carrying Jesus’ cross instead of Simon of Cyrene. But if you believe your faith is equal to or surpasses Peter’s, then your faith is not about Jesus but about you. You are putting your faith in your faith rather than in Jesus.

But the other scenario is just the flip side of the same coin. If you hold Peter up as a model of faith, you may then feel that you will never measure up. Your faith will never be good enough. You are not only unable to imagine yourself sinking into the sea as you walk to Jesus on the water, in your imagination you won’t even get out of the boat. You won’t just see yourself with Peter denying Jesus, but you won’t even go so far as to insist that you would never abandon Jesus. If this is so, if you never measure up, then your faith again is not about Jesus. It is about you. We are saved by Jesus not by how strong our faith is in Jesus.

But whether you feel that you do live up to Peter’s faith or that you could never live up to Peter’s faith, let’s look at how Jesus accepts Peter’s faith. The evangelist writes in verse 15, “When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’” Simon, is your faith and devotion and love greater than everyone else? You said you would lay down your life for me (13:37)? Is that the kind of love you have for me? You denied knowing me three times the other night, but how about now?  Do you truly love me more than anyone? “Yes, Lord,” says Peter, “you know that I love you like a friend.”

Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, using the Greek word, agape, which is self-sacrificial love. But Peter answers using the Greek word, phileo, as in Philosophy, a lover, philo, of wisdom, sophos. Moreover, Jesus asks if Peter loves him more than everyone else. All throughout each one of the gospels, Peter is always the first one to step forward, the first one to declare his fidelity, so now Jesus asks him straight up, “Do you really love me more than these?” And Peter says, “Yeah, I love you like a friend.” And Jesus accepts Peter’s reply and tells him, “Feed my lambs.”

But then Jesus asks again, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Do you agapas me? This time, Jesus does not compare Peter’s love to others. He just wants to know if Peter loves him deeply. “Yes Lord,” Peter replies a second time, “you now that I love you.” “You know that I philo se. I love you like a friend.” Again, Jesus accepts Peter’s reply. “Take care of my sheep,” he tells him.

But then he asks Peter a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Do you philes me? Do you love me like a friend? He does not ask if Peter loves him with the deep, sacrificial agape love, just the philo love. Peter is now hurt because Jesus has now asked three times if he loves him, but in that hurt there is liberation. Jesus has twice accepted Peter’s love and commissioned him to feed his lambs and take care of his sheep. Jesus is telling Peter that you don’t have to have love as strong as Jesus’ love in order for Jesus to accept your love. We don’t need superhero faith to have faith in Jesus. We don’t need superhero love for Jesus to receive us. He calls us as we are – broken, tentative, maybe filled with doubts, as those who find it hard to give of ourselves to others, as those who can only manage to love others like a friend.

And again, a third time, Jesus accepts Peter’s love. “Feed my sheep,” he says. But he continues, “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. … Follow me.” Peter, you can only manage to love like a friend now, but if you follow me, I will dress you and lead you and you will love me and follow me to the end, even unto death.

Friends, Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (15:5). The only way we can love as Jesus loves is if we abide in him. The only way to grow in our love for others is to first know and receive God’s love for us. You can’t fully love others unless you know that you are loved. If you want to grow in your faith, don’t strive to believe more, just rest in the fact that Jesus has called you as you are. He accepts the love and faith you have now. But if you receive from Jesus, if you continue following him, he will deepen your love and strengthen your faith. Follow Jesus. Allow him to dress you and he will lead you to places you think that you are not able to go, and to love in ways that you don’t think you are able to love. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.  

(Silence)

Almighty God, your Son, Jesus is the vine and we are his branches. May we abide with him so that the same love that raised him from the dead may course through our veins as we obey his command to love one another. Amen.

 

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April 28, 2019 Divine Encounters: Sent
(John 20:19-31) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon]

Last week I showed you this set of Russian dolls, so you would not have any problem believing me if I told you that there were other dolls inside this one that looked just like it. Right? You saw with your own eyes how the smaller dolls fit inside the bigger ones. But what if I told you that this morning I asked Dave and Val if I could borrow just the biggest doll and that it was empty? This doll is empty. The other dolls are back at Dave and Val’s house. Do you believe me? Even if I don’t open this up and show you so that you can see for yourself, do you still believe me?

I hope so, because that is something like what believing in Jesus is like. Now sometimes we say that we can feel Jesus’ with us, but very few people say that they have actually seen Jesus or a vision of Jesus. On the day Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples and they finally saw him and believed that he rose from the dead. But Thomas didn’t believe. But then Jesus came to his disciples again a week later and this time Thomas was with them. He saw and believed. But Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

So you have to trust me, you have to believe in me in order to believe that there are no other dolls inside this one. Likewise, we have to believe the disciples who saw Jesus and told others that Jesus rose from the dead. We have to believe Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who wrote the gospels. Even though we haven’t seen Jesus, we believe because we believe that what they say is true. And so we are blessed because that means we have more faith. We have faith in Jesus and we have faith those people who have told us about Jesus.

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[End of Children’s Sermon]
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I’d like to start this morning with a little experiment. I am going to say some words and I want you all to think of their opposites, but remember your answers: Love. Sad. Joy. Fear. Good. Doubt. Now, I am going to repeat the list but I want you all to say out loud at the same time what your answer was. Love. Sad. Joy. Doubt. Good. Fear.

My hypotheses was that most of you would come up with the same answers to most of these words: Love-Hate, Sad-Happy, Joy-Sorrow, Good – Bad, Doubt – and Faith. But that there would be several answers to fear: security, trust, safety, and that no one would come up with John’s answer. The Thesaurus in my Word program lists assurance as the antonym to fear. Some others might be courage or calmness. It is hard to pinpoint one thing as an antonym to fear. Maybe that is because there are so many things that cause us to fear. We have looked at fear over the Lenten season and I think I pointed us toward trust and faith as the answer to fear. That’s not all wrong, faith might alleviate fear, but faith isn’t the opposite of fear. John points to peace as the opposite of fear. Fear says all shall go wrong. Peace, or better yet the Hebrew concept of shalom says all shall be well.

The disciples gather in the upper room and lock the doors because they are afraid. Although the women and Peter and John have seen that the tomb is empty and Mary has reported seeing and talking to Jesus, they remain afraid of the Jewish leaders. Maybe they also fear actually seeing Jesus again. It isn’t every day that you see someone who is supposed to be dead, not to mention that they all abandoned Jesus at his hour of need. And some denied him. But Jesus appears among them and says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his hands and his side to show that it is indeed him and that he has indeed bodily risen from the dead. But he does not chide or scold. He says, “Peace be with you.” All shall be well.

To drive the point home he says once again, “Peace be with you.” He then commissions them, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” He then repeats the process: He breathes upon them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

At the end of our passage the author writes, “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Faith and life. Trust in Jesus leads to life, fullness of life. And life, full life, life that can be lived to the full is a life characterized by shalom, peace, a condition of wholeness and complete well-being. All shall be well. This is what Jesus bestows upon the disciples when he enters the room and casts out their fear. “Peace be with you. I am alive.” “Peace be with you. I am with you.” “Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit for as I told you I am going away but I will not leave you alone. I will send the counselor who will lead you into all truth.”

Jesus’ mission was to give humanity this peace, this fullness of life. Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life and have it to the full” (10:10). But after he gives this peace to the disciples, after he assures them of his presence by giving them the Holy Spirit, he commissions them. “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” They are to carry on Jesus’ ministry. They are to be the bearers of the good news that leads to the fullness of life, to shalom. “If you forgive anyone’s sins,” he says, “they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

There is a lot of debate about what this last phrase means. Some contend that it denotes the power and function of the church to declare whether someone is forgiven or not. In some traditions that power has been localized in the ordained priesthood. But since Jesus is addressing everyone gathered, and that seems to include more than just the 11 remaining apostles, I would argue that Jesus is talking about the function of the church in general. “Forgiveness of sins” is a shorthand for God’s mission to reconcile his people to him and end their exile. The church’s function is to be sent as Jesus was sent. It is to bear witness to who Jesus is so that others might come to have faith in him and so receive the peace, which included the forgiveness of sins, the reconciliation with God that is the wholeness of life.

But that begs the question: “How is it that people come to have faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God?” How can people receive this forgiveness, shalom and fullness of life? Our text gives us two options. “Because you have seen me,” Jesus tells Thomas, “you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen yet have believed.” You can come to faith from a direct encounter with Jesus, from seeing Jesus, or from the testimony of others. The author concludes these scenes saying. “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” The scriptures were written so that we might encounter Jesus.

Our text thus grapples with two basic aspects of the human condition: fear and doubt. Jesus offers us peace and shalom to overcome our fear, but he must also overcome our doubt with faith so that we may receive his peace. Does anyone else wonder if God chose the wisest course of action to accomplish this? It is one thing to be assured of the peace that Jesus gives when you can see him standing before you, holes in hands and side, as evidence that God is the God of life. It is one thing to be able to put your finger in the holes in his hands and to touch his side and feel that God has power over death and so can actually give us shalom. The disciples and Thomas believe because they have seen, but Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

 But was it really a good plan to leave Jesus’ mission in the hands of the church? How are we supposed to convince the doubting Thomas’s of the twenty first century. Skeptics today will say that people back in Jesus’ day didn’t have the benefit of modern science and so they were just more prone to believe in miracles. They were all just naïve, gullible and superstitious. But we know better because science has shown us that people don’t come alive again after they have been dead for over a day.

On the one hand, this is modern day hubris. Of course people back then knew that the dead don’t come back to life. They knew that someone born blind doesn’t just one day begin seeing or that the lame don’t just wake up one day able to walk. But even the disciples had seen these things happen, and yet when they hear about Jesus’ resurrection and see evidence of it, they still doubted. It was not until they see Jesus themselves that they believe. The disciples were not just naïve and gullible.

On the other hand, modern science has paved the way for something that I believe does make faith in Christ more difficult today than two thousand years ago. Today we have the idols of scientism and materialism. People have come to put their faith in science. Even some Christians believe that the only things that are true are things that they say are “scientifically true.” And some people have gone a step further to believe that there is nothing in this world except that which is material. A belief, by the way, that can’t be proven scientifically. But many have cut themselves off from the spiritual and the transcendent. How can they come to faith?

So why does Jesus pass his mission off to the disciples? Why doesn’t Jesus just appear to people like he did to Paul on the road to Damascus? If people today could see as the disciples did, they would believe. That would fulfill their need for “scientific proof,” even though Jesus isn’t an experiment that you can reproduce with predictable results. And Jesus would show them that he is not just an idea, a wish fulfillment, but true, material flesh and blood. If people could touch him as Thomas could, they would have to believe.

There are two problems with this, however. First, sight does not guarantee faith. The disciples saw and believed but they had been with Jesus for three years. The resurrection realigned their understanding of all Jesus taught and their understanding of all of the Hebrew Scriptures as we saw last week. The resurrection re-aligned the faith the disciples already had in Jesus and in the God of Israel. But many other people had seen Jesus’ miracles, and heard his teaching, yet they did not believe. Sight does not guarantee belief.

Second, there is a problem with people having to believe. We assume that if people saw Jesus, they would be forced to believe. So let’s suppose Jesus did show himself to people. How do you suppose those people who had seen Jesus might look upon those who had not seen Jesus? My guess is that at least some would count themselves as superior to others. They would assume that they had been specially chosen to be seen by Jesus. They would appropriate power and authority in the church. They would deem their interpretation of scripture as incontrovertible. They had seen Jesus, so they must know the truth about all things. We think that seeing Jesus might mean we would have to believe in him, but if some people saw Jesus some would conclude that others would have to believe them.

It is not hard to imagine this scenario. All you have to do is substitute “seeing Jesus” with the absolute certainty held by fundamentalist groups of all religious stripes. There have been plenty of Christian individuals and sects who have claimed to have the definitive understanding of the Christian faith and teaching. Any who differ from them, even in the slightest detail, are deemed heretics. Absolute certainty leads to absolutism and abuses of power.

But John tells us, “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” We have four different accounts of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. We also have various explanations of his teachings found in the epistles. We must rely on the testimony of others. Jesus himself did not leave a written account of his own life, nor did he leave us a library of sermons. But if we had the very words of Jesus, we might be tempted to think that there was no need for interpretation. We might forget that the disciples who heard Jesus’ very words needed to have Jesus interpret his own words to them.

Jesus said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” He might also have said, “Blessed are those who have had to interpret and yet have believed.” Because we have to rely on the testimony of others to know who Jesus is, and because we have to interpret their stories about Jesus and Jesus’ own teaching, we have to rely on one another. We have to enter into such a process of seeking knowledge and understanding with trust, with faith. We have to trust that the testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James and Paul is trustworthy. We ourselves have to enter into discussion with other Christians in good faith with humility, without claiming to have all the answers, open to correction and to deeper insight. We must treat others who disagree with us with charity and be patient with them and with ourselves. The necessity of interpretation entails community.

In short absolute certainty in such matters leads to absolutism, pride, exclusion, and, in the end, violence. The need for interpretation elicits patience, kindness, generosity, humility, and inclusion. The irony of the modern church is that we often fear exactly what Jesus says is a blessing, “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed.” We want absolute certainty. We want to live by sight, but Jesus calls us to live by faith. The very messiness we seek to avoid is that which enables true community and thus shalom to thrive.

 Jesus sends us as the Father sent him. While it is true that Jesus was able to work incredible miracles, we saw at the beginning of Lent that he refused the devil’s temptations to use his power for his own comfort, to accumulate more power, and to manipulate God. Instead he came with humility, born among some farm animals, soon a refugee. He came telling parables which we still struggle to fully understand. He came healing the sick and welcoming the marginalized into his community. He assembled a group of fishermen and tax-collectors and other ordinary people and said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. Go, tell people the good news so that they may believe and have life. And then he breathed upon them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Almighty God, the strength of those who believe

and the hope of those who doubt,

may we, who have not seen, have faith,

and receive your peace that assures us that all shall be well,

that we might be instruments of your mission

to bring blessing and life to the world.

We pray in the name of Jesus

who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.

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April 21, 2019 Divine Encounters: The God of Life
(Acts 10:34-43; Luke 24:1-12) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon]

I have here this morning some Russian dolls that belong to Dave and Val. So, do you see these Russian dolls? Or do you just see one? Now you just see one, but if you break this open, your find another one inside and it looks just like the other one. And if you break this one open you find that there is yet another one inside of this one.

This morning we are celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, right? But have you ever wondered what Jesus was like before and after the resurrection? Did he have a human body before the resurrection? Yes, he did. Did he have a human body after the resurrection? That’s a tougher question isn’t it? He did have a body. Luke makes it point to say that Jesus ate food and drank with his disciples. But after Jesus rose from the dead his body was in some ways very different from his previous body. He still had the holes in his hands and feet from the nails, but he didn’t bleed from them. He was able to just appear and disappear from sight. He had a body and he was the same Jesus, but yet it was different. It was as if his first body became in some ways “bigger” or more powerful, or just different. Sort of like this doll becoming this one (puts the small doll inside the bigger one).  

But, after Jesus rose from the dead, his disciples also realized that Jesus wasn’t just a human being: he was also God. [Puts doll into larger doll]. So now their understanding of God became bigger too. They knew that God was God the Father. And God the Son. [Remove doll] And when they looked at Jesus they learned what God was like because in so many ways they were the same. And then they realized that God was also the Holy Spirit. [Remove doll]. And the Spirit taught them what Jesus was like and what God the Father was like. And so we can think of God as three: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit shows us who Jesus is (places doll inside) and the Spirit and Jesus show us who the Father is (places it inside) so that we can think of God as One.
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[End of Children’s Sermon]
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On Sunday morning Peter finds himself standing outside Jesus’ tomb. He looked in and saw the strips of linen with which they had wrapped Jesus’ body just the other night, but he did not see the two men with gleaming cloths spoken of by the women. He didn’t know what to make of this, or of what the women had said. They had told the disciples that these two men with gleaming white clothes had said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again’” (Luke 24:5-7). Jesus’ words came back to him as if through a fog, but still, what did they mean?

It is so easy for us on this side of Easter to look at Peter and the disciples and wonder how could they be so thick and slow understand. Not only did Jesus tell his disciples this plainly, but he did so at least three times according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, and a couple more times, although with more metaphorical language, according to the Gospel of John. But on Sunday morning Peter stands outside the tomb “wondering what happened” (12).

In our reading from Acts, however, Peter seems to know fully what happened. “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. … [The Jewish leaders] killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day (Acts 10:38-40). So what happened to Peter? How did he move from not understanding to being so confident of what happened that he could proclaim this as good news?

Well, we should probably begin before our story in Luke. Peter is standing outside the tomb on Sunday morning wondering what happened, but this was after a horrific couple of days. Peter had lived through a nightmare beginning with the Passover meal when Jesus had told him that he would deny him three times. Then he watched as Jesus was arrested, tried, tortured, and crucified. All of Peter’s hopes and dreams around Jesus came crashing down. All that he thought Jesus would do hung with Jesus on the cross. And then they took his body down from the cross and laid it in a tomb. And then came the Sabbath. And all was quiet. Nothing happened … for a whole day.

Of course what happened to Peter later that day and for many days after was that he encountered the resurrected Jesus. He says, “God raised him from the dead and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (49-41). Peter’s understanding of who Jesus was, of what Jesus came to do and how he did it, and so Peter’s whole understanding of God changed through his encounter with the risen Jesus. Peter had always worshipped God as the God of life, but now Peter had seen and experienced God’s power not only of life, but God’s power over death and also over sin. He came to believe that God had finally returned to Israel to redeem Israel, but not by condemning the Gentiles and the Romans and defeating them in battle, but by condemning and defeating the greater powers of sin and death by becoming human and by dying on a cross and rising from the dead. Peter’s whole conception of God expanded through this divine encounter with the risen Christ.

But yet, Peter’s understanding of God still fit with his previous knowledge of God. He says, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that Jesus is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (42-43).  While Peter’s understanding of God and God’s Messiah changed, it still fit with all that the Hebrew Scriptures revealed about God.

So it is easy to stand on this side of Easter and look down on Peter and the other disciples for how long it takes them to get it. But we also stand on this side of the writing of the whole of the New Testament and on this side of two thousand years of Christian theology in which the church has struggled and continues to struggle to understand just exactly what it means that God took on flesh, proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, healed the sick, died on a cross, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. The Bible itself is a testament that God has revealed himself only slowly, progressively, over thousands of years to humanity. The Bible also testifies to the fact that this is how an individual’s understanding of God comes about. It took years for Abraham and Jacob to fully grasp who God was and to grasp God’s love and grace.

Our knowledge of God is not just head knowledge about God. Our knowledge of God grows, expands and deepens as we experience God in our lives, as we have divine encounters throughout the course of our histories. Over the course of the next few weeks we will look at various divine encounters and how they changed the people involved and expanded their living knowledge of God and how they responded to God.

So my question for you this morning is, when have you had such a divine encounter and how has your understanding and response to God grown, expanded and deepened? Is your understanding of God the same as it was when you were five? Or fifteen? Or Twenty? And what has it taken to change or expand or deepen your view of God? Have you had a Good Friday experience like Peter in which everything you thought you knew about God came crashing down around you? Maybe this came about because of a difficult experience in your life? Maybe it came about because the church, the place where you expect to find and experience God, became a toxic place that filled you more with doubt than faith? Maybe you lost a loved one. Maybe you or someone you close to you was in a terrible accident or received a difficult diagnosis. Maybe after years of attending church and believing the same thing, you just felt that there had to be something more, something richer, something deeper.

When we go through those Good Friday experiences, they are often followed or happen in conjunction with a Holy Saturday experience. Peter used to walk and talk with God in the flesh, but how silent and empty and absent God must have felt to Peter on Saturday. Sometimes it can feel to us that God is no longer present with us and it might seem like nothing is happening or that God isn’t doing anything. But on Holy Saturday, God was preparing to raise Jesus from the dead. Those times of silence and waiting and not knowing, those fallow times, are times when we can trust that God is working in ways that we just don’t fathom at the time.

So if you have had a Good Friday experience, and maybe a Holy Saturday experience, what was your Easter Sunday experience? How did you encounter the risen Christ? What was your divine encounter? Maybe it happened in a time or times of prayer or scripture reading, or in worship. Maybe you started to awaken to God’s small voice assuring you of his love and that, yes, indeed he was God, the God of life. Maybe it happened in one moment, or slowly over the course of time. Maybe you had a vision like Peter before he went to Cornelius. Or maybe, like Cornelius hearing the testimony of Peter, you encountered the divine through someone else, through a book, through a preacher, through the words and presence of a patient friend, someone who bore witness to the goodness of God.

I ask you all about this because all of these experiences, from the pain to the silence to the divine encounter, are gifts God has given you. These are gifts that you can now share with others. When people ask about Hessel Park Church, my standard reply over the past seventeen years has been to talk about our hospitality – about the graduate and international students and families in our midst – and about how our members live out their faith in the community and on campus through their work and volunteering.

Recently, however, someone pointed out that Hessel Park Church exemplifies another kind of hospitality. We are a community of Christ among whom several people have found refuge and healing after going through painful experiences at another church. Here at Hessel Park they have come to heal, to work through some of the pain they suffered, to learn to love the church again, and to begin serving others in the church again. If you think I am singling you out, look around the room and know that there are several others thinking the same thing. My guess is that others of us have had their faith tested and stretched and their concept of God changed by other painful experiences. But if we have gone through something like a Good Friday experience, or a Holy Saturday experience, we are given the opportunity to encounter God in the risen Christ in a much deeper and more profound way than we had when we just recited the Apostle’s creed and believed in our heads that Jesus rose from the dead. Now we know this truth more deeply in our guts. We have living knowledge of God’s love and mercy. Now God has expanded so that he encompasses more of us – even our pain, out doubts, our weak but growing faith.

But, painful as the realization may be, this new understanding of God is a gift and a call. As our understanding of God expands, so do our hearts. If we have lived through Good Friday and Holy Saturday and come into Easter morning, we can sit with and pray with and listen to and walk beside those going through their Good Friday. In so doing God will use us as his witnesses so that we might point others to Jesus and through us they too may come to have a divine encounter with the risen Christ, the God of life.

Almighty God, we rejoice that the grave could not hold your Son, and that he has conquered death, risen to rule over all powers of this earth. We praise you that he summons us into new life, to follow him with joy and gladness. By your Spirit, lift us from doubt and despair, and set our feet in Christ’s holy way, that our lives may be signs of his life, and all we have may show forth his love. Through Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead and now reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen.

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April 14, 2019 Fasting from Fear: The Fear of Death
(Philippians 1:27-2:11) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon]
Once upon a time there was a donkey named Ebed who lived in the town of Bethany, just up the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem. Every day Ebed’s owner would lead him out to pick up a load of one thing or another to bring to the market in Jerusalem. Some days he would go out into the fields to carry sheaves of wheat to the threshing floor. The next day he would carry the bags of grain into Jerusalem. Some days he would go to the river to pick up bags of sand, or to the foundry to carry loads of bricks. He carried all sorts of things: wool from the sheep, olives and olive oil, grapes and even wine.

As he trudged along from Bethany to Jerusalem, sometimes he would have to stop and move to the side of the road as a contingent of Roman soldiers marched by. Their leader always rode a beautiful horse who would be all adorned with a real, leather saddle, plated armor over its nose, and red tassels hanging from his saddle. Once he even saw a whole company of cavalry. Hundreds of horses all prepared for war marched by him while he wore a heavy load of firewood.

One morning some strange men came up to him and started untying him. They told his master, “The Lord needs it.” They led Ebed to a man they called Jesus. They put their cloaks on him and then Jesus sat upon him. As they walked down from Bethany into Jerusalem, the people started throwing their cloaks on the ground in front of them and singing, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Ebed felt ashamed. “Why have they chosen me to carry this Jesus if they think he is a king? He should be riding one of those war horses. I am just a donkey, a mere pack horse.” It was almost as if Jesus could read his mind for Jesus then said, “The war horses love to demonstrate their power and to show everyone how important they are. But it is donkeys like you, Ebed, who bring life to the city. You bring the people bricks and sand for their houses, wine and grain for food, and wool for their clothing. In my kingdom the greatest will be like the youngest, and the one who rules like one who serves. I tell you Ebed, I have come to bring life to these people and so I am with you as one who serves” (see Luke 22:24-30). And from then on, Ebed, whose name means servant, never felt ashamed again.
* * * * * * * * * *
[End of Children’s Sermon]
* * * * * * * * * *

As I was walking into the library the other day, I saw two cars that looked like they had been in an accident. On closer inspection, I noticed that they were just being stubborn. The first car had been waiting to leave the parking lot, turning left onto Randolph, which is one way going north. But he had pulled out well beyond the stop sign. The second car had tried to pull into the parking lot, but could not make the corner because he was turning left from the left lane. Maybe he took the corner too sharply, but I am pretty sure it was because the first car had pulled out too far.

I watched as they sat there for a couple of minutes. They must have been gesturing at each other. Finally the second guy rolled down his window to talk. The other opened his door. They spoke. Nobody moved. All it would have taken is for one of them to back up a few feet, but they each sat there. They talked some more. The second guy got out of his car, looked at the angle of his car and the turn he had to make. He got back in and moved forward a few feet trying to make the turn, but stopped, thinking better of it. Again, if the first car had simply backed up a foot or two, the second car could have made the turn. Instead they just argued some more.

At this point the cars behind the first car started turning around and exiting the parking lot another way. They continued to argue. Then the second guy put on his hazards, got out of his car, shrugged his shoulders, and began walking toward the library. Finally, the first car turned his wheels sharply, and since the second car had pulled ahead a little, he was able to pull around the second car and out onto the street. The other man walked back to his car and pulls into the parking lot. What a relief. Neither of them had to back down. Neither of them had to give in. They each could feel like they left having won the argument. They each showed the other guy who was boss.

We humans can be so imprisoned by our egos. Have you ever found yourself standing up against someone, refusing to move? It is the principle of the thing, we tell ourselves. I am in the right. I am tired of being pushed around. Perhaps later you look back on your altercation and wonder why you got so riled up over such a small thing. How hard would it have been to just back up a few feet to let the other guy pass? How much would it have taken to apologize? Was getting your way in the meeting really worth the damage you caused to your relationship with your colleague? Was it really worth humiliating your waitress in order to get five dollars off your bill just because she got your order wrong and you had to wait a bit longer for your meal?

Let me suggest that what lies at the heart of our ego is our fear of death. Our ego, our inner voice, tells us that life is up to us. I am responsible for my destiny. I have to make sure that I am safe, secure and successful. I have to get what I need, deserve, or want. If I give in on this, then I am going to start giving in elsewhere and then who is going determine my life?  We listen to our egos because we fear that if we don’t, our selves will shrivel up and die.

I think that there is a flip side to this picture as well. Some of us are driven by an overactive ego, others of us have an ego that is so damaged that we find security and our self-worth not in ourselves but solely in relation to others. Maybe we have been told all our lives by parents, siblings, and teachers that we are not worth much. We have come to believe that we have to earn our parent’s love. We have to earn our teachers approval. We have to earn our friend’s kindness. Our self-worth and security then become wrapped up in how well we are able to please others. We assume that people don’t like or love us for who we are but because they need us.  

Of course I am drawing a stark picture of things. Perhaps you know someone who is so driven by their own ego that they run rough shod over everyone and everything. They must always get what they want and no one had better stand in their way. Or maybe you know someone who has such a damaged ego, that they always feel a need to please others. Most of us, I suspect, live somewhere between and beyond these scenarios. We have matured enough so that we do not always cave in to that ego-driven voice. We have some sense of self-respect and self-worth, but it is not overblown. But do we not sometimes react out of our ego when we are tired after a long day? Do we not at times get so caught up in trying to convince someone that we should do x instead of y that we allow our ego to take over? And do we never catch ourselves over complimenting someone in order to try to get them to like us?

Franciscan Priest and one time spiritual director to Mother Teresa, Albert Haase writes "At the heart of Jesus' teaching is denying and losing one's life - self-emptying for the sake of others. ... In a paradox that thousands of believers in history have discovered as true, loss and emptying of self leads to a fulfillment that is experienced as salvation. And indeed it is a kind of salvation, for the one who loses their life is rescued from the constricting clutches of the ego."[1]

Jesus exemplified this teaching by coming into Jerusalem riding not on a war horse, but on a donkey. His whole ministry reaches a climax in the cross not just because his death was a sacrifice for our sins, but because the cross exemplified what he had been doing all along in his ministry. As we saw at the beginning of Lent, Jesus put aside his own ego, his desire for comfort, his desire for power, his desire for security in order to put his trust solely in God and in God’s power. It is this long road of emptying himself that prepares Jesus for the cross. His ministry of service to others prepares him to say in the garden, “not my will, but yours be done,” (Luke 22:42) and on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (23:46).

I doubt any of us will ever be called upon to give up our very lives for the sake of the gospel. But we are called to prepare for it. We are called to take up our cross daily and to follow Jesus. That takes place in the everyday events of our lives. We practice it in our relationships with our spouses, our colleagues, our children, our parents, our rivals, and our enemies. In our epistle reading, Paul points to the humility of Christ, to his taking on flesh and the cross in order to encourage the Philippian church to have the same attitude in the everyday events of their life together as a church. Let us therefore take a look at Paul’s letter to the Philippian church.

The apostle Paul addresses a church in turmoil in his letter to the Philippian church. The church feels hard pressed by its environment. Philippi is a Roman colonial city, populated by retired military and government officials. You see, Rome would set up these colonial cities around its empire and populate them with loyal Roman citizens. They thus had pockets of strength and loyalty that could influence the surrounding region and keep a lid on any dissent. The church thus stands at odds with the rest of the city for the church proclaims Jesus as Lord rather than Caesar and it worships Jesus as the Son of God and not Caesar. It stands out as anti-patriotic in a hyper-patriotic city.

Paul writes first of all to encourage the Philippian church to remain faithful in the face of this adversity. He writes, in fact, from imprisonment in Rome and tells them that the gospel has advanced not in spite of his chains, but because of them. Paul has been enabled to preach the gospel to his guards. Even some among Caesar’s own household have become Christians. If Paul and the gospel can endure and even flourish while in a Roman prison, the church can remain faithful in a Roman colonial city.

In 1:27 Paul writes, “Whatever happens conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then ... I will know that you stand firm in one Spirit striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.” Ironically, Paul encourages them in one sense to emulate the Philippians themselves. In 3:20 he reminds them that their citizenship is in heaven. The church is like a loyal colonial outpost of the Kingdom of God. Their task is to be a pocket of faithfulness in this broken world in order to proclaim the gospel and bear witness to the coming kingdom.

Second, Paul writes to encourage unity in the church. It is not clear what the issue is, but there is obviously some division among the leadership. Already in the passage I just read you can hear Paul not only calling for the church to stand firm, but to do so in unity. In chapter 4:2 he explicitly calls Euodia and Syntyche “to be of the same mind.” In chapter 2, then, Paul highlights the need for unity. “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” If you are united with Christ Jesus, then you must be united with one another, in spirit, in mind, and in ministry.

Unfortunately our bibles divide the passage we read this morning between two chapters. Modern bibles split the passage further by putting in different headings. First Paul encourages the church to live a life worthy of the gospel in chapter 1 and then to imitate Christ’s humility in chapter 2. These headings, however, miss the theme of unity which I just pointed out. Paul, however puts these all together. Notice the little word “therefor” which begins chapter 2. Paul encourages the Philippians to live in unity so that they might stand firm against those who oppose them. But they are to do both not by assuming a high position, or by amassing power, or by securing their own place, but by “do[ing] nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” The way to stand firm against oppression, the way to remain united, the way to live a life worthy of the gospel is to imitate the self-emptying, self-denying humility of Christ.

The way to imitate Christ, however, does not lay within our own ability. The person with the damaged ego is unable to imitate Christ on their own because they have no self to empty. They have no sense of self-worth that they can deny. The ego driven person, who never wants to back down, can’t just decide to no longer be selfish, and prideful, and arrogant, because such effort simply continues their pattern of self-reliance. Whether you are a proud and arrogant war horse, or a lowly and ashamed donkey, you must first turn to Christ.

The place Paul starts is with the word “therefore” in 2:1. “Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit.” The place to start is in relationship to Christ. The person with the inflated ego must come to realize that we are only truly human when we are in good and healthy relationships with others. No person is an island. The person with the damaged ego must come to realize that we are only truly human when we are in good and healthy relationships with others. Dependent and exploitative relationships diminish us. Good and healthy relationships help us become all that we can be. But we can only be all that we can be in Christ, by knowing his love for us, by knowing that, yes, the God of all creation loves me and us and has given me and us a portion of himself through the presence of his Spirit.

By finding our lives, our self-worth, and our identities in Christ with each other, we are able to overcome the fear of death. We know that nothing in this world can separate us from the love of Christ, not even death itself. We know that just as God raised Christ from the dead, we too will be raised with Christ in the age to come. We can therefore stand firm in the face of antagonism and hardship and oppression without needing to win the fight or demonstrate our power. Rather we can face such hardship with tenderness, love, and compassion. We can then seek unity in the face of division. We can put aside our conceit and selfish ambition and put the needs of others ahead of our own.

In so doing, as we find our true selves rising in relationship with Christ, as we die to our false ego-driven and ego-damaged selves, we emulate and point to Christ. We bear witness to the one who did not consider equality with God something to be held on to, but who emptied himself and took on the very nature of a servant. He took on flesh, he humbled himself becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. In dying to ourselves and rising in Christ we bear witness to the one whom God raised to the highest place and gave the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Silence

God of all,

you gave your only-begotten son to take the form of a servant,

and to be obedient even to death on a cross.

Give us the same mind that was in Christ Jesus,

that, sharing in his humility,

we may die to ourselves and rise with him to everlasting life,

and so be with him in his glory,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirt,

one God, now and forever. Amen.



[1] Albert Haase, This Sacred Moment: Becoming Holy Right Where You Are (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2010), 93.

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March 31, 2019 Fasting from the Fear of Righteousness
(Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] When I was young my brothers and I had a dog named Stubby. I know that was a weird name for a dog, but he had a stubby tail and he was named before we got him. For the most part Stubby was a good dog. He was friendly and fun to play with. But Stubby had his faults. He liked to chew things. He would chew our tennis shoes. He chewed our socks. Once he even chewed my English book from school. I had to tell my teacher, “My dog ate my homework!”

The thing about Stubby was that he wasn’t very sneaky. He knew when he had done something wrong and his whole body showed it. When I would come home from school, he would usually jump up and down and make a fuss. But sometimes when I came home, he wouldn’t great me with a happy bark. Rather, his whole body would kind of curl up, he would drop his head down, his ears would droop, and he would try to slink off to some corner or hide behind some chair. It was then that I knew that I needed to search through the house to find what he had chewed up. When he shrugged his shoulders and slinked around, I knew he had been naughty.

Jesus once told a story to show us what God is like. Once, he said, there was a son who took half of his father’s money and then moved away. The son spent all of his father’s money on parties and crazy living. But one day he ran out of money. Soon he was hungry and could only find the worst of jobs feeding pigs. He then thought that even his father’s servants did better than him, so he decided to go home and to ask his father to treat him not like a son, but like a servant. He sort of came home with his shoulders slumped and his head down because he knew he had been very naughty. But when his father saw him from a long way off, he ran out to meet him and he gave him a big hug. And then he threw a huge party to welcome his son home.

Sometimes we feel like that son, or like my dog Stubby. We shrug our shoulders over and hang our heads because we know that we have done something wrong. But God is always like that father. He is waiting for us to come home. He is waiting to forgive us and to wrap us up in a great be hug.
[End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

It is that time of year when we sing that classic American folk hymn, “What Wondrous Love Is This.” While the hymn celebrates God’s wondrous love for us shown in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, I wonder if we form our image of God more from the second stanza: “When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down, when I was sinking down, sinking down; when I was sinking down beneath God's righteous frown.” When we think of God and particularly the righteousness of God, do we imagine his righteous frown? Do we sink down under the weight God’s righteousness until our shoulders become stooped and our heads hang low? Do we fear the righteousness of God?

Some Pharisees and teachers of the law watch as a number of tax collectors and sinners gather around Jesus to listen to him. They mutter to one another, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” As I mentioned last week, we who live in a guilt based culture immediately assume that these three parables in Luke are about sin and guilt. We think our assumptions are confirmed when Jesus tells a story about a lost sheep and concludes, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” And then a story about a son who wishes his father dead, takes his inheritance, moves to a Gentiles country and wastes his money on wild parties. This is a story about sin.

Or is it? If we approach this story from the assumption that Jesus lived in a shame based culture, things look a bit different. Then we notice that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law shake their heads not at the sinful tax collectors and prostitutes, but at how shameless Jesus is. Doesn’t Jesus realize that he is associating with people who do not act in accord with the ways of God? Does he not realize how unclean and impure these people are? Does he not realize that they tarnish the holiness of God’s people? Why doesn’t he shun them like a truly righteous person?

When we read the third parable we then notice that while the son does plan on confessing his sin to his father, his hope is not the absolution of guilt. He just hopes that the father will allow him to be considered a part of his household. The son comes home with his shoulders stooped and his head bent low in shame, but he doesn’t even hope for any form of forgiveness. He just wants a nine-to-five job, three square meals, and a place to lay his head. And so when the father greets him, we notice that the father never says, “I forgive you,” but he pulls out all the stops to place his son in a position of honor – he calls for the best robe, a ring and sandals. He orders his servants to kill the fattened calf and to invite the neighbors over for a huge celebration. In North America we only honor our children in this way when they get married. Yes, forgiveness is included with this reconciliation, but reconciliation is demonstrated by putting the son who was lost in the highest position of honor.

No wonder the older brother is so mad. His younger brother has done nothing but dishonor their father and bring shame to the family name. And now his father pulls out all the stops and honors him. He, the older son, has been a loyal son honoring his father all this time, but has his father has ever honored him in this way? “Look!” he says to his father, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him.”

With the son’s criticism of the father, Jesus brings the story back to the crux of the matter. The Pharisees and teachers of the law criticize Jesus for consorting with sinners. The older son criticizes his father for welcoming home the prodigal son. They criticize Jesus for being unrighteous. It is a given that the prostitutes and tax-collectors and the prodigal son are unrighteous because of their sinful and shameful behavior. That is not the issue. What is at issue is Jesus’ behavior. What is at issue is the nature of righteous behavior and particularly the righteous behavior of God.

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law are righteous in that they follow the law and keep its commandments. That is a given. That is not at issue. But they also believe that they are righteous by standing in judgment over and ostracizing the unrighteous. They think they are emulating God by looking down on sinners with a righteous frown.

But Jesus says, “Everyone knows a good shepherd will leave the ninety nine sheep to find the one lost sheep. And everyone knows a frugal woman will tear apart her house to find her lost coin. And everyone knows a loving father will wait patiently and longingly for his prodigal son to come home.

We see the righteousness of God most clearly, not in his righteous frown, but in his love. We need not fear the righteousness of God for it is because God is righteous that he goes out like the good shepherd to seek the lost. It is because he is righteous that Jesus draws sinners and tax collectors to him. It is because he is righteous that God waits patiently and longingly for the prodigal child to come home. It is because God is righteous that he celebrates with the angels in heaven when a sinner repents.

And so this begs the question, which son is the lost son? The one who squanders the father’s love or the one who refuses to emulate the father’s love? In the first two parables the shepherd and the woman actively search for that which is lost. In the third parable the father waits for the prodigal to come home, but he goes out to search for the older brother. Because God is righteous, he even seeks out those who think they are righteous as they sit in judgment over others. Because God is righteous, he seeks out those who don’t care about the lost.

So what does it mean to be righteous? Does it mean to follow all the rules like the Pharisees and teachers of the law? Does it mean to shun those who bring shame on God’s people through their sinful lifestyle? No, to be righteous is to emulate the righteousness of God.

Paul makes the nature of God’s righteousness clear in our epistle reading. Paul repeats three truths three times that begin with and flow out of our being “in Christ.”  We thus see a pattern of themes: ABC, ABC, ABC. Theme, or truth A, is that we are in Christ. Theme or truth B, is the means or the how of being in Christ, that God redeems us through the ministry of Jesus. Theme or truth C, is then the purpose: We are in Christ in order to be enlisted into God’s ministry. God’s ministry begins with Christ but now continues in us who are in Christ.

So Paul establishes our life in Christ [Theme A] in verse 17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” He then says how this happens, theme B, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, [and to what purpose? C] and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” Paul then repeats: “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ [A], [B: How?] not counting people’s sins against them. [C: Why?] And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. [Repeat, A in Christ] We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. [B: How?] God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, [C: Why?] so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Friends, we need not fear the righteousness of God for we are joined to Christ so that we might become the righteousness of God. We are joined to Christ so that the love of God, the grace of God, the mercy of God, the salvation of God, that is God’s righteousness might be made manifest in us. We become the righteousness of God as we welcome those who are not living according to God’s ways. We become the righteousness of God as we mirror the grace and love of God to others. We become the righteousness of God when we seek out and show God’s love even to those who sit in judgment over others. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence

God of compassion, you are slow to anger, and full of mercy,

welcoming sinners who return to you with penitent hearts

and seeking out the hard of heart and the self-righteous.

Receive in your loving embrace all who come home to you.

Seat them at your bountiful table of grace,

that, with all your children,

they may feast with delight

on all that satisfies the hungry heart.

We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our savior,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever. Amen.

 

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March 24, 2019 Fasting from the Fear of Fruitlessness
(Luke 13:1-9) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there was a little girl who wanted a bike for her birthday. On the morning of her birthday she woke up and ran downstairs, and there in the middle of the living room was a brand new bike. “Do you want me to help you learn how to ride it?” her father asked. “No,” said the little girl. “I can do it myself. You always treat me like a little girl. I am big now and I don ‘t need your help.”

So the little girl put on her helmet and went outside to ride her bike. She climbed on it and began peddling. But before she got more than two feet, she fell down. She got up and tried again. And she fell down.

This went on for quite some time until she noticed an owl sitting in a tree watching her. “What are you looking at, you old buzzard?” the girl asked. “I am not an old buzzard,” the owl replied. “I am an owl and old owls are known to be wise.” “Oh yeah,” the girl said. “Then tell me how to become wise.” “There are four things you need for wisdom,” said the owl. “Four things you need to say: I don’t know. I was wrong. I am sorry. I need help.”[1] Then the owl flew away.

The little girl watched the owl fly away, she shrugged her shoulders and then climbed on her bike. She pushed off and down on the petal and immediately fell to the ground once again. She tried again and again and again. But she could not get more than a few feet before falling down.

After a while, bruised and sore, she came into the house and found her dad. “Dad,” she said. “I don’t know how to ride my bike. I was wrong when I didn’t let you teach me. I am sorry I spoke to you the way I did. I need your help.” Her dad gave her a big hug, told her he forgave her and then went outside with her to teach her how to ride her new bike.

If it is true that we need other people to teach us things and to help us to grow, then it is even more true that we need God to teach us how to become disciples of Jesus. These words are not only good words to gain wisdom, they are words that help us grow to be good disciples of Jesus: I don’t know. I was wrong. I am sorry. I need help.
[End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Are you ever annoyed by this? You are driving down the highway and the cars ahead of you begin slowing down. Soon you are in stop and go traffic. There are no construction signs. The weather is fine. There must be an accident up ahead. You look across the median and watch jealously as the cars opposite speed by. After 15 minutes or so things start picking up but you are confused. You haven’t had to squeeze down into one lane. And then you look across the median and see that there is a traffic accident on the other side of the freeway. The only reason you landed in a traffic jam is because everyone just had to slow down to get a good look at the misfortune of others.

Why do we slow down to look at an accident? Are we really concerned to know if someone is hurt or not? If we are, why don’t we stop? Are we just morbidly fascinated by a deadly crash? Do we pass judgment as we drive by? “I bet someone was texting when that happened.” Or do we slow down and look in order to be thankful that it is not us?

While on his way to Jerusalem some people tell Jesus about some Galileans whom Pilate killed and then he mixed their blood with their sacrifices thus defiling them. Why do these people tell Jesus this story? Jesus assumes that they tell him this in order to make those not involved feel slightly better about themselves. In response Jesus asks. “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Jesus then repeats his message asking them about eighteen people who died when a tower fell on them. “Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will perish.”

That doesn’t quite make sense to me. Is Jesus saying, “Unless you repent, something bad like this will happen to you too”? Unless you repent, you may end up in a heap on the freeway. Unless you repent, you may end up getting hit by a bus. That can’t be what Jesus is saying because he insists that the Galileans were not murdered by Pilate because they were sinners. Their need for repentance was not greater than those standing before Jesus.

Maybe the point is that sin isn’t necessarily the issue. Jesus assumes that the people are pointing out some ne’er to wells who got what they deserved. We know from the story of the blind man in John that misfortune was often attributed to sin. The disciples ask Jesus about the blind man, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). There too Jesus turns the conversation away from sin and tells his disciples that God’s glory will be shown through the blind man.

So if sin isn’t the issue, maybe Jesus isn’t calling the crowds to repent from sin. Maybe he is calling them to repent of something else. To repent means to turn from heading one way and to begin walking in another way. This may include repenting from sin, but it indicates a whole shift in one’s life.

The crowds point to some people who they assume are failures in the religious life of the day. “Look, Jesus, they must have been terrible sinners. What do you make of such failures?” The stories surrounding our text, however, are filled with Jesus overturning the expectations of the religious life of the day. In chapter 11 he unleashes a series of “woes” on the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, those regarded as religious experts. He accuses them of being sticklers about minor laws while ignoring the essentials like justice and compassion, of seeking to look the part of the religiously successful while being filled with corruption inside, of taking pride that they hold the means of salvation for others while shutting the door on those who need it.

In chapter 12 he says, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees.” And “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” He tells the crowds not to seek after riches and material things, but to seek after the kingdom of God. It was assumed that wealth was a sign of righteousness and God’s blessing.

In chapter 13 someone asks Jesus a question that has the same spirit as the question in our text. “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” At first Jesus seems to play into the assumptions of the day. He says, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.” But then he shifts and says that many who assume that they have entered through the narrow door will have the door slammed in their face. “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God.” But then Jesus throws the doors of the kingdom wide open and says, “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.” Jesus turns the religious expectations of the day on their heads, for he says, “Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

It is easy to read these chapters in Luke as if Jesus were talking about sin and guilt, if you assume that this is what Jesus is talking about. Western culture has been described as a guilt culture over against Eastern cultures that are shame and honor based cultures. We in the West ask, “What did you do wrong? What law did you break?” But those in the East ask, “Who did you dishonor? What custom did you beak?” The consequence for breaking the law is guilt and some form of punishment. The consequence for dishonoring someone is shame and ostracism.

Let me suggest that Jesus is addressing a shame based culture in Luke rather than a guilt based culture. The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law aren’t so worried about doing what is right and what is wrong as about appearing to be in the right. They want the places of honor. They seek prosperity and love money because it demonstrates that they are blessed by God. When people see a wealthy man, they assume that he is also righteous. They look down on others not because they are morally inferior but because their sin makes them unclean. It makes them like the Gentiles. It dishonors them and the community. Sinners should therefore be kept at a distance, ostracized from the community, not counted as among the righteous. The people assume that those Pilate killed are sinners because they are so shamed and dishonored by having their blood mixed with their sacrifices.

Jesus thus calls the people to repent from a shame based religious culture. Now I want to be clear, I am not going to set up the Western guilt based religious culture as the alternative. Our guilt based religious culture has its own serious problems that we need to repent from, a culture that arose and developed many of its problems because we didn’t realize that Jewish society was a shame based culture and not a guilt based culture. But that is a different sermon.

Jesus calls the people to repent from a shame based religious culture because it values people on appearances rather than on substance. Jesus calls us to turn from shame to grace. In a shame based culture people who don’t succeed in life, people who haven’t managed to put up at least the appearance of “righteousness” are discounted as embarrassments to the community. A shame base culture thus encourages a draconian work ethic. Jesus accuses the teachers of the law of loading on the people all kinds of laws and regulations, but then not lifting a finger to help them. The law becomes a status marker – the more you can follow the minutiae of the law the greater status you will have in the community, the more successful you will be, the more you will be honored.

While we in the West may live in a guilt based religious culture, let me suggest that our culture is motivated by shame as well. We live in a culture that values material success, or at least the appearance of success. The other day I perused Christianity Today’s special edition for pastors.[2] While I think the articles meant well and some had good advice about various things, they all sought to help pastors become more effective pastors, more successful. There were three articles on how to better understand, minister to, and preach to Generation Z – which is the generation now entering college. There was an article on balancing our drive for success with our need for connection and another on how to raise kids while being a full time pastor. The irony of it was that in the midst of all these articles I needed to read so that I could know the right things and practice the right practices in order to make my ministry more successful, there was an article by a pastor whose ministry became more fruitful as he worked less and less, as he quit striving so hard to be successful. The tragedy of it was that this diamond in the rough appeared to be just another thing I had to do in order to achieve. This culture of success and shame lives and breathes in the church as well as in society.

 It has been suggested that shame is one of three main emotions that motivate us in detrimental ways. The other two are fear and anger. Let me read you a list of emotions and see if you associate with them. Do you feel these feelings occasionally or often? Defeated, inferior, inadequate, depressed, slighted, unloved, degraded, isolated, deprived, worthless, discouraged, unappreciated. These are emotions often associated with shame. When I read those articles from Christianity Today instead of feeling enlightened, encouraged, and energized, I felt inadequate, inferior, and worthless. I am never going to measure up to all of that. I felt ashamed.

Do you ever feel like you don’t measure up? Do you ever feel like you have to prove your worth over and over and over again? Do you ever think that getting that job, or that degree, or that car will make you feel like you have finally made it? And do I need to mention body image, or women’s clothing, or all the way men display their worth through their tools or their toys – “Take a look at the new golf club I got, just feel how well balanced it is. It’s like swinging air!” Welcome to the shame culture of the West. We are constantly bombarded by news stories, conferences, workshops, and advertising with the same message – you are not good enough!

But Jesus calls us to repent from this. He said, “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’”

When we get caught up in a culture of shame we get stuck on a treadmill. Nothing we produce will ever be good enough. There will always be some other level we could attain to. There will always be someone else who is more successful, who attracts more attention than us. We will always be left either feeling like a tree with barren branches, or like the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law who look down on everyone else who isn’t quite up to our level. Whichever way we go, our branches will be barren of the fruit that really matters: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Jesus continues, “Sir,” the man replied, “leave the tree alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine. If not, then cut it down.” The tree cannot produce good fruit on its own. It needs the gardener to tend it. It needs good soil and water and fertilizer. The production of good fruit in the life of a disciple of Jesus comes through grace. It comes through God’s work in us rather than through all our striving.

There are two dimensions to being a disciple of Christ, an active dimension and a passive dimension.[3] We are participants in our spiritual growth. We do need to develop good spiritual habits and practices. We do need to strive after virtue and seek to do the right thing. The spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, scripture reading and so on, however, place us in a position that allows the second dimension to work. This is the passive dimension in which we die to ourselves, in which we recognize our need for God’s grace, in which we stop all our striving, acknowledge our weaknesses, repent of our sin, and receive grace of God. It is here that God tells us that we are his and he loves us. It is here that we learn to say: I don’t know. I was wrong. I am sorry. And I need help. And it is her that the Spirit fertilizes our soil and waters our roots so that we may produce good fruit. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[silence]

 

Merciful God,

in Christ you make all things new.

Transform the poverty of our nature

by the riches of your grace,

and in the renewal of our lives

make known your heavenly glory;

through Jesus Christ our Redeemer,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever. Amen.



[1] Louise Penny writes a mystery series in which her main character, Armand Gamache, the head of the murder squad of the Quebec police, takes on a number of protégés, people who other leaders in the police force count as a liability and not cut out for the job. But Gamache takes these failures under his wing and he coaches them until they achieve the highest ranks in the police department. The advice he always gives them when they begin is this. He tells them there are four sayings that lead to wisdom: "I don't know. I need help. I'm sorry. I was wrong."

[2] CT Pastors Special Issue: The Integrated Pastor (Spring, 2019).

[3] Pastor and author Samuel Wells says, “There are two dimensions to discipleship. One is the learning of habits and the forming of character, the shaping of commitments and the inscribing of rhythms, the training in discipline and the facing of sacrifices. Some people speak as if that were the only important part. But the other dimension is perhaps even more important. It is the acknowledgement of weakness, the asking for help, the naming of failure, the request of forgiveness, the desire for reconciliation, and the longing for restoration.” Samuel Wells, Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear with Faith (Brazos Press, 2011), 35.

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March 17, 2019 Fasting from Fear
(Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Do you ever get scared? I do sometimes. What are some things that make people scared? The dark, snakes, spiders, dogs, thunder storms. There are lots of things that can make us scared. But what are some things that help us not be scared. What could you do if you are scared? Sing a song. Run away. Find your mom or dad. Friends. Well I think hugs are one of the best ways to get rid of fear. There is nothing that makes you feel safer than being hugged by your mom or dad, or grandma or grandpa when you are scared. But did you know that some animals give their children hugs. When a mother hen senses danger, she will open up her wings and her baby chicks know that that means they need to come to her and hide underneath her wings.

Now a hug from a parent in one thing that can help us when we are afraid, but how about a hug from God? Every week over the next few weeks we are going to start our worship saying these words from Psalm 91, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” And in our gospel lesson today Jesus says to the people of Jerusalem, “O Jerusalem, I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” Jesus says he is like a hen who gathers her chicks under her wings.

I have a picture for you of a hen with her chicks. So next time you are afraid and you go to someone for a hug, remember that Jesus wants to give you a hug too. [End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

“I was afraid.” “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid.” Adam does not say, “Thank you,” or “I praise you,” or “What would you have me do,” or even, “Great and Almighty God,” but Adam’s first words, humankind’s first words to God are, “I was afraid.” We are looking at fear during this Lenten season not only because our world seems to be going through a stage of heightened fear, but because fear is a common theme in the biblical story. Rabbi Harold Kushner who wrote Why Bad Things Happen to Good People calls “Do not fear” the 11th commandment because it occurs so frequently in the biblical story, more than 80 times.[1]

Sometimes people are explicitly fearful in the biblical story, such as when Adam and Eve hide in the garden after the first sin. Just as often, however, fear operates implicitly. Cain is angry and probably jealous that God favored Abel’s sacrifice. We can surmise that he fears being overtaken by his younger brother. When God exiles him for murdering Abel, Cain fears for his life and begs God for protection. The people in Babel build a huge tower in order to “make a name for themselves” and to prevent themselves from being scattered. It is not clear what they fear, but they seek to protect themselves by boosting their reputation and remaining united. After Jacob cheats Esau out of Isaac’s blessing, he flees for his life before the murderous rage of Esau. When he returns years later he sends his wives and children ahead of him as human shields to make sure Esau is over his anger. Jealousy, again probably mixed with fear, causes Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery. Years later they bow before Pharaoh’s deputy cringing in fear for their lives.

In the New Testament the crowds and the disciples all respond to Jesus’ teaching and miraculous powers with awe and with fear. Full of bravado the disciples all follow Peter in vowing to stay with Jesus to the very end, but then melt away as the soldiers march Jesus from Gethsemane to the temple. After the angel tells the women that Jesus has risen from the dead, Marks’ gospel ends with this: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (16:8). John tells us that the disciples met together in the upper room in Jerusalem on that same evening with the door locked for fear of the Jewish leaders.

In our text this morning, God appears to Abram and greets him with the first instance of the 11th commandment, “Do not be afraid.” But what is Abram afraid of? Well, God uproots Abram from the only social security system of the ancient world, one’s extended family, and tells him to go to an unknown land. When he arrives in Canaan, there is a famine. He and Sarai flee to Egypt where Abram passes Sarai off as his sister lest Pharaoh kill him and to take her into his haram. When he gets back he and Lot split up. Abram allows Lot to settle in the more fertile plain of Jordan. Abram the less fertile land. Soon the Kings all around Abram and Lot go to war with each other. Lot ends up being taken hostage forcing Abram to enter into the fray. By now Abram is probably into his early 80s and still childless even though God had promised to make of him a great nation. So what is Abram afraid of? The question should rather be, what is Abram not afraid of?

We often speak of Abram as the father of our faith, but fear is Abram’s other alternative. The biblical story thus poses two opposing approaches to life; one can approach life from a stance of fear or one can approach life from a stance of faith. But how does one choose faith over fear?

Such a choice is not simply a rational decision. No one sets about looking at the world to see which makes more sense. You pick up the paper and read of a terrorist in New Zeeland. You don’t choose to think, “The world is overrun by Islamic terrorists.” But some may come to that conclusion irrespective of the facts that the terrorist in this case was a white nationalist and that terrorist attacks are actually extremely rare.  You don’t turn on the TV and watch the stories of the two recent Boeing Jet crashes and choose to think, “Flying is extremely dangerous. I am never going to fly again.” But some people will be cancelling the vacation plans they had for Spring Break.

No, people perceive the world through fear because they are moved to perceive it through fear. They are bombarded with anecdotal stories about various tragedies. They are fed misinformation by talking heads on shows that purport to be journalistic. Or maybe they live through a terrifying experience that leaves them in a state predisposed to fear. We view the world through fear because we are moved to do so.

In his book Factfulness Hans Rosling notes that fear arises in us because we often ignore or dismiss vital facts. We are fearful because we only know half of the picture. When there is a natural disaster the news rightly focuses on the pain and suffering of the victims, but no one ever mentions that over the past 50 years improved international responses to natural disasters have helped lower the ratio of deaths caused by natural disasters by over half. Moreover, Rosling argues that fear actually clouds our thinking. He says, “When we are afraid we do not think clearly. … There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.”[2] When we are afraid our brain causes us to see what we expect to see out of fear rather than to see what is actually before us. This would explain why a white police officer might see a young unarmed black teenager walking away from him as a threat to his life. He is afraid so he sees what his fear tells him to see.

Clinical counselor and spiritual director, Lisa Harrell posits that beneath fear lies anxiety and that anxiety at root is a feeling of being disconnected.[3] Before we feel fear, we recognize a disconnection between ourselves and the world around us. Perhaps there is a disconnection between me and another person because that person looks different or dresses different or talks different than me. Perhaps there is a disconnection because the thing before me is actually something that should be feared. You turn the corner on a hike through the mountains and there lying on the path is a rattle snake sunning itself. Fear is then the right response and you should disconnect yourself as much as possible from the snake.

But in this moment of anxiety, there is another possible response: faith. When you come across someone who looks and dresses and talks differently from you, you can respond with faith that this person is a human being, someone made in the image of God, and probably more like you than different from you. You can respond to the snake with a mix of fear and faith – fear telling you to be very cautious and back off, but faith telling you that the snake is just a snake and not something malicious. It has nothing against you and won’t harm you if you just leave it alone. Rosling would have us counter fear with facts. We should remember, he argues, that “2016 was the second safest year in aviation history” and that “flying has gotten 2,100 times safer” over the past 70 years. But while facts may help us some in responding to anxiety with faith rather than fear, according to Rosling himself, this is not really a rational process.

Rabbi Kushner makes a direct appeal to faith as he encourages us to conquer fear. He writes, “there is one more weapon we can deploy in our personal battle against the threat of terrorism, and that is faith. Not faith that God will protect the innocent and make sure nothing bad happens to them. We learned long before September 11 that we don’t live in that kind of world. The faith I am talking about is the conviction that God has made the world in such a way that wicked people inevitably overreach and bring about their downfall.” [4] This is close to Martin Luther King’s conviction that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Faith in the way the world was created, however, is a step removed from what really reconnects us. God comes to Abram and says, “Do not fear. I am your shield. Your reward shall be great.” In order to have faith that the world was created in such a way that it bends toward justice, one must have faith in a God, in a just God. God tells Abram that he is his protector, his shield. He will be there for Abram. Faith in God is thus not just facts about God that one believes, but a personal, relational knowledge of God, otherwise known as trust. If fear stems from the disconnection of anxiety, faith reconnects us to God. Once reconnected in a relationship with God, we can then more easily reconnect to the creation he made and to other human beings made in his image.

Abram, however, needs a bit of convincing. He asks God, “What can you give me since I remain childless.” God takes Abram outside and says, “Look up at the sky and count the stars. … So shall your offspring be.” “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited to him as righteousness.” Abram’s trust in God is counted as righteousness because, as I have said recently, righteousness is not about being good so much as being in a right relationship. The correct stance for us to take before the God of all creation is a stance of trust. That’s the relationship – God is Abram’s shield, Abram trusts. God watches over us, we believe in, we have faith in, we trust God.

Such a trust in God, however, is not, as Rabbi Kushner points out, that nothing bad will ever happen to us. It is a trust that has the long term in mind. Author and pastor Norman Shawchuck writes, “Fear kills mind and soul by slowly obliterating the visions we hold for our lives.” Faith opens up our vision of what can and will be. And so God takes Abram outside and says, “Look up at the sky and count the stars. … So shall your offspring be.” Through faith Abram has a new vision of what will be. But God goes on to emphasize the need to take a long term view. He tells Abram that before God fulfills his promise, Abram’s descendants will become slaves for four hundred years in Egypt. Only after all those years will God bring his people back to the land and fulfill his promise to Abram.

But then God gives Abram a sign of his promise to assure Abram that he will make good on his promise. He instructs Abram to cut a heifer, a goat and a ram in half, and also to sacrifice some birds. After Abram falls into a deep sleep, he sees a vision of a smoking firepot and a torch passing between the splayed animals. God, represented by the firepot and torch is basically saying, “Cross my heart and hope to die. May I become like these animals if I fail to keep my promises.”

In our Gospel lesson some Pharisees approach Jesus and try to scare him off. “Go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” Jesus takes the long view. He tells them he will continue doing what he is doing and more, that he himself is heading to Jerusalem “for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” He then turns the tables on the Pharisees and calls them to flee, not away, but into his arms. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

While Jesus looks ahead to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he is also looking to what that entry foreshadows, the coming of his kingdom. Jesus takes the long view. He knows that the cross lies ahead for him in the short term, but he has faith that a kingdom awaits in the long term. And so he keeps on driving out demons and healing people as he makes his way towards Jerusalem. And there in Jerusalem God gives his people and all people a sign of the new covenant, a sign of God’s eternal love and his eternal protection: Jesus spreads his arms on a cross in order to take the world under the shadow of the Almighty. Friends in Christ, Fear not for Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ shall come again. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Silence

God of Abraham and Israel, in Jesus Christ lifted up on a cross, you opened up for us the path to eternal life. Grant us the gift of your Spirit that we may walk by faith on that path to eternal life. We pray in the name of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.



[1] Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, Reprint edition (New York: Anchor, 2010), 22.

[2] Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, and Ola Rosling, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (New York: Flatiron Books, 2018), 103.

[3] “Role of a Spiritual Director: Awareness and Presence,” lecture for the Tending the Holy program at the Christos Center, Minneapolis, MN.

[4] Kushner, Conquering Fear, 38.

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March 10, 2019 Fasting from Fear: If you are the Son of God
(Luke 4:1-13) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Do you all know what this is? This is one of our family photo albums. This one has pictures of our family when Evan and Elise were maybe about your age or even a bit younger. Evan and Elise are still my children, and I know that. But when I look through one of our photo albums, I am reminded of all the things we did together as a family, of vacations we took, of friends we had through the years. Look here is a picture of Miss Grace and Miss Elise. And so I am reminded that being a family means having a history together. We have a whole family story.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is out in the wilderness for forty days where he is tempted by the devil. And the devil keeps questioning Jesus about his relationship to God. He says, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread.” “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the top of the temple.” Basically the devil keeps asking, “Are you really the Son of God?”

Jesus answers the devils temptation by quoting from the Bible. But when he does so, he is not just saying some words, he is pointing the devil to the story of when God saves his people, his children, Israel from Egypt. The Bible is sort of like Jesus’ family album. He is saying, “Yes, I know I am God’s Son because here is a story from my family album. Here is where God led Israel out of Egypt and through the desert to the Promised Land.” And since you we are God’s children too, when we read the Bible we can think of it like a family photo album, they are stories of God and our family.

* * * * * * * [End of Children’s Sermon] * * * * * * *

Jesus has just been baptized by John in the River Jordan. As he was praying heaven opened and the Holy Spirit “anointed” him by landing on him in the form of a dove. A voice from heaven affirmed this anointing, “You are my Son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” This not only confirmed to Jesus that he was the Son of God, the Messiah, but that his vocation was to lead God’s people in a new exodus. He was baptized in the River Jordan just below Mount Nebo where the first Joshua, which is the Hebrew form of Jesus, led God’s people into the Promised Land after their 40 years in the desert.

The Spirt, Luke tells us, leads Jesus into the wilderness where for forty days he is tempted by the devil. We often think of Jesus’ temptation as a series of just three temptations. But according to Luke Jesus’ trial lasted all 40 days. One wonders if the devil kept at Jesus with these same three temptations or if these three just sort of some up the nature of these 40 days of trial.

While each temptation is unique, they each focus on Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, and thus they play upon fear: each time the devil beings, “if you are the Son of God.” This is explicit in the first and third temptation, but implicit in the second. The Son of God is the Messiah and so destined to be king not only of Israel, but of the nations. The devil tempts Jesus with regard to the core of his identity. You can almost hear the Devil up to his old tricks again. “Did God really say that you were his beloved Son? If he is so pleased with you, why did his Spirit lead you out here into the wilderness? Why has he left you so hungry? If you are his Son, don’t you deserve to be well fed? Go ahead, turn these stones into bread if you are indeed the Son of God.”

Religion throughout human history has often been viewed as sort of a tool to help human beings cope in a dangerous world. The pagan nations surrounding Israel sacrificed to the gods to placate them so that the gods would provide the nation with a good harvest, or to end a drought, or to make their flocks fertile. In our modern world religion is often viewed as a moral guide and a psychological coping mechanism. People use religion to teach their kids to be nice to people and to comfort themselves. Religion, particularly in North American, has thus become privatized and cordoned off as just one aspect of our lives among many.

Robert Wicks, a psychologist who specializes in helping people after traumatic experiences, writes that “we [often] live in two different worlds – one a seemingly real, practical and demanding world; the other, a wistful, so-called ‘spiritual’ world.” [i] For the most part our society expects us to live publicly in this real, practical and secular world. This is where we work and study and buy things and vote for politicians. This world calls us to be realistic about human nature and the kind of world we live in. It is a competitive world that demands that we each seek and use power to obtain and maintain our place. Religion, which is otherworldly, is supposed to remain in the private sphere. We can take comfort that God forgives us and loves us and saves us from the tortures of hell, and in our homes and churches we can teach our children to be good.

This split between the “real world” and the spiritual world often faces a crisis when we face “real world” hardships and difficulties. Our religion tells us that God loves us. Christianity teaches us that through baptism we are God’s children, sons and daughters. But how does that work when we lose our job? How does that work when we finish our PhD and there are no positions available? How does that work when a woman of 50, like my aunt Kathi, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease? Has this question never creeped into your mind when you have faced a problem in life? “If God loves you, why is this happening to you? If God is so powerful, why is he allowing you to suffer? Are you really a child of God? Is there really a God anyway?”

While our society tries to separate our “religious” life from our “real” life, Robert Wicks says, “Real spirituality dawns when our life with God becomes as real as the problems and joys we experience each day.” Jesus responds to the devil’s temptation by saying, “It is written, “People don’t’ live by bread alone.” Jesus expects even the devil to know the scriptures for he assumes that the devil can complete this verse from Deuteronomy 8:3, “People don’t live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” But Jesus also expects that the devil knows what precedes: “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness for forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna … to teach you that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Jesus was led into the wilderness just as God led the Israelites into the wilderness. Our relationship with God is not just about learning morality and feeling good about ourselves. Our relationship with God is about God leading us and coming with us into the wilderness. Our relationship with God is about learning to trust God in the everyday activities in our lives, both the times in the wilderness and the times in the Promised Land. And so our relationship with God is also about learning to obey God in the everyday activities in our lives. To be a child of God is to always be a child of God, not just on Sunday in order to get a spiritual fix to help us get through the week. And so to be a child of God is to trust that God will provide, but his provision is usually just enough for each day and it comes not to take us out of hardship and pain and suffering, but it comes in the midst of hardship and pain and suffering.

Jesus responds to the devil not by quoting a proof text, but by centering his experience in the story of God’s relationship with Israel. “Yes, I am the Son of God for God led his son, Israel, into the wilderness where he guided them and provided for them for forty years. I am learning as Israel learned that I do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Jesus rejects the temptation to view the world through fear, and views the world through faith.

Not satisfied, the devil tries another tactic. Both Jesus and the devil know that as the Son of God, Jesus is destined to become king of the nations. The devil’s temptation is twofold: he tempts Jesus to take what is rightfully his now instead of waiting for it, and he tempts Jesus to claim what is rightfully his by his way rather than God’s way. Jesus and the devil already know that the cross lies ahead for Jesus. The devil questions whether Jesus really has to go through the cross to fulfill his calling as the Messiah. If Jesus would just worship the devil and rule in his way rather than in God’s way, Jesus could take authority over all the kingdoms of the world. Why wait, if you are the Son of God. If you are the Son of God, why take up a cross?

As Christians living after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus we live in a paradox that poses us a similar temptation. Jesus has already won the victory over death and sin. His kingdom is coming. God has promised that his followers will rule with Jesus. Paul can even say in Ephesians that “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms” (2:6). We are in one sense already reigning with Jesus. The paradox, however, is that the kingdom is not yet fully come.

Is it not our place and our calling to implement the Kingdom of God here and now? Are we not to anticipate the Kingdom by shaping society according to the Kingdom? Should we not enter into politics and the business world and academia and use our power and influence to bring the Kingdom in? Is it not our destiny to reign with Jesus?

Jesus answers the devil, “It is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” Again, while Jesus quotes a verse that directly counters the devil’s temptation, the full force of his answer can only be seen if we know the context of the verse. Jesus again quotes from Deuteronomy (chapter 6) from a section in which God is commanding Israel to obey all his commandments once they enter into the Promised Land. The passage begins with a command to teach God’s commands to and impress them upon their children. These commands are to be the way in which Israel as a nation understands, perceives and acts within the world. The section, in fact, includes what can be called the primary Jewish confession of faith, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, … and soul, … and strength” (4-5). The passage ends with the reason for all this: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (21).

Once again Jesus counters the devil’s temptation by placing himself in the story of Israel. Israel was called to put the pagan gods of Egypt behind them, but that meant worshipping the one true God alone, and trusting alone in the power of God. Leaving the pagan gods meant also leaving the imperial forces of Pharaoh behind them. Likewise, Jesus is not to worship other gods or to put his trust in human power or demonic power. The main means Jesus had to accomplish his ministry was the power of God given him through the Spirit and acted upon him in his resurrection.

So are we called to enter into politics and business and the academy to witness to the kingdom and so that society might bend ever so slightly toward the kingdom? Yes, but the Kingdom remains a cross shaped Kingdom. The only means of influence Jesus condones for us are the same means that he used –welcoming the outcasts, forgiving sinners, protecting the vulnerable, calling out the abuses of power by the privileged, loving our enemies. Jesus is clear that the church’s mission in this kingdom anticipating world is the same as his. It is to take up a cross and trust in the power of God. Again, Jesus deflects the temptation by immersing himself in the story of Israel. We are called to immerse ourselves in the story of Jesus.

Hearing Jesus’ response, the devil doubles down. If Jesus is determined to head to the cross, maybe he ought to test the waters first. The devil takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple and says “So you are the Son of God, and yet you trust God with your life? Even through death? Well, if you are indeed the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Maybe before you take up your cross, you should test the waters.

Jesus responds “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus also, doubles down because he refers the devil back to the same passage he quoted earlier. His answer is roughly the same. He is committed to living out his story as God’s Son, as the true and obedient Israelite. He is committed to worshipping and serving only God, which means living according to God’s ways rather than the worlds.

At the beginning of this sermon I said that people in our society often live in “two worlds:” a world of “reality” and a world of “spirituality.” The fear that comes from life’s difficult situations can often break down the façade that separates these two worlds. This can be in the form of a personal tragedy, or, maybe a national crisis. WE thought America was a Christian nation, but now we have more and more Muslims entering the country, abortion remains legal and Socialism continues to pose a threat to “The American Way of Life.”

Wicks suggested that when this façade falls this may lead to a real spirituality. Let me suggest that this can also lead to a false spirituality. In the latter, when people give in to fear, Jesus and God become co-opted into a “real world” agenda. People seek to establish the kingdom through this worldly power and means, and the Kingdom is often equated with our nation, or our political party, or our economic or political system.

 In the former, in real spirituality, when we respond to fear with faith and immerse ourselves in the stories of Israel and Jesus, God becomes truly present to us as he was to the Israelites in the desert and to Jesus during his ministry. Having our “sonship” and “daughtership” confirmed by God’s presence, we are then enabled to truly live the Christina life and live into God’s story. We are enabled to love our neighbors, protect the vulnerable, and to die to ourselves so that Jesus’ reign may be seen in our very lives.  In so doing we bear witness to the reign of Christ and through us God bends the world ever so slightly towards the kingdom. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit

[Silence]

Almighty God,
your Son fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are but did not sin.
Give us grace to direct our lives in obedience to your Spirit,
that as you know our weakness,
so we may know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer,
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.



[i] Robert Wicks in Everyday Simplicity, quoted in Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God: Paperback Edition (Nashville: Upper Room, 2006), 186.

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March 3, 2019 Prayer from Petition to Contemplation: The Purpose of Prayer
(Luke 9:28-36) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] [lights a candle] Have you ever wondered how a candle burns? You know that they are pretty easy to put out right? You can just blow them out, like the candles on your birthday cake. But you can also put them out by taking a candle snuffer, and just putting it over the flame. Now when I do this, [takes a glass and puts it over the flame] I am not touching the wick that the flame is on or even the flame itself. I can just put the glass over the flame, and eventually the flame goes out. Why is that?

The flame, you see, needs oxygen or air to burn. When I put the glass over top of the flame, the flame burns up all the oxygen, all the air inside the glass and once all the oxygen is gone the flame dies.

We just sang “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” That sounds like we are like candles. We have a little light that shines. But what is the light that you  let shine? [Jesus, the gospel] That’s right, Jesus is the light we have. Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” So when we tell people about Jesus, we are shining the light of Jesus. But Jesus also says to his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” When we live like Jesus, then the light of Jesus shines through us.

We are like a candle that shines a light. The candle isn’t the light, but the light burns because of the candle. But, like we saw earlier, the flame of a candle also needs oxygen. For us to shine the light of Jesus, we need something like oxygen or air. We need the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God who breathes the life of Jesus into us. And one of the regular ways God breaths his Spirit into us is through prayer. When we don’t pray, it is like we are putting a glass over our flame. Now when we do pray, we often talk to God and ask him for things or thank him for things. But we can also just be silent in prayer. And in that silence we can open the doors of our hearts to let God’s Spirit in. So can we do that? Let’s pray in silence for a moment and then I will pray for us. … Thank you God for the gift of your Spirit. May your Spirit within us help us to shine the light of Christ through all that we say and all that we do. Amen.

* * * * * * * * * * [End of Children’s Sermon] * * * * * * * * * *

In Luke 9:18, in the scene before our text, it says, “Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” The discussion that follows serves as the climactic turning point in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. After the disciples respond that others say that Jesus is “John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the Prophets come back to life,” Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers, “The Messiah.”

Now it is finally out in the open. Jesus is the long awaited King of Israel, the one anointed to save God’s people. Before this revelation people keep asking who Jesus is. And when the demons proclaim him to be the Son of God, he tells them to be quiet. This is dangerous knowledge. To claim to be the Son of God and the Messiah is to lay down a challenge before Caesar. Jesus confirms the dangerous nature of this knowledge but confounds his disciples by next telling them, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Jesus thus reveals not only that he is the Messiah but that his mission as the Messiah is to take up a cross.

The next thing Luke tells us is that a few days later Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up a mountain to pray. We have been looking at prayer through the Psalms over the past weeks, but it would be a shame to have a series on prayer without at least one sermon coming from the Gospel of Luke. One of the unique emphases of Luke, you see, is his emphasis on prayer, and particularly that Jesus sustained his ministry through prayer. Matthew mentions that Jesus actually prays only twice in his gospel. Mark only 3 times. But Luke tells us 8 times that Jesus prays.

Most of the time Luke just notes that Jesus went off to pray or was praying, such as before Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah, “Once while Jesus was praying … he asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” There are three times, however, where Luke makes prayer central to what happens in the story. Like Matthew and Mark, in Luke Jesus prays in Gethsemane. At the end of Jesus’ ministry, just as he is about to be arrested, tried, beaten, mocked, and crucified, Jesus goes off by himself to pray. Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke tells us that just after Jesus was baptized, Jesus was praying when the Holy Spirit came down upon him and God’s voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” Likewise, it is only Luke who tells us that Jesus goes up the mountain with the three disciples to pray. Only Luke tells us that it is while Jesus is praying that he is transfigured, that he talks with Moses and Elijah, and that God’s voice comes again saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen. Listen to him.”

Luke depicts Jesus as being sustained in and through prayer throughout his ministry. Telling us that “Once, when Jesus was praying,” paints the impression that Jesus regularly and frequently went off by himself or with his disciples to pray. But Luke also emphasizes Jesus’ prayer life at the key points in his ministry. Jesus is praying at the beginning of his ministry when he is anointed by baptism and the Spirit and confirmed by the voice of God. Jesus is praying at the turning point in his ministry, just after he openly claims to be the Messiah and reveals that he is going to go to Jerusalem to take up a cross. And Jesus prays at the end of his ministry moments before he is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.

But why is this important? Why does Luke emphasize Jesus’ prayer life? Frist of all, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ prayer life to show us how necessary it was for Jesus. We believe Jesus was both God and man, but Jesus didn’t do all the things he did – healing people, casting out demons, going to the cross - simply as God. He did them as a flesh and blood human being. I don’t quite understand it and it seems almost heretical to say it, but Luke depicts Jesus as needing the power of the Holy Spirit to do all that he does. Luke depicts Jesus as not able to do these thing on his own. Although Jesus is God in the flesh, Jesus needs to go off by himself in prayer. Jesus needs to be with his Heavenly Father. Jesus needs to commune with the Holy Spirit. He does this through prayer.

Second, if Jesus needed to commune with the Father and the Spirit, so do we. Luke tells us 8 times that Jesus prays and he mentions prayer 19 more times. In Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke mentions prayer 32 times. And in the majority of those times Luke tells us of the prayers of the Apostles. Luke reports that the followers of Jesus continue to meet and pray in the days after Jesus’ ascension. They are all together praying when the Spirit comes at Pentecost. They pray to choose a 12th apostle. They pray when Peter is in prison. Peter is praying when he receives the messengers from Cornelius. They pray when they commission Paul and Barnabas. Peter and Paul both pray before healing people. They pray before choosing elders for the church in Antioch. Paul receives his call to go to the Gentiles while he is in prayer. If Jesus needed to pray to sustain his ministry, the Acts of the Apostles flow out of their prayer.

So what does Jesus receive in prayer? What can we hope to receive in prayer? Let’s take a closer look at our text. Four things happen while Jesus is praying. First his appearance changes and his clothes become bright as a flash of lightening. This is an image taken from the book of Daniel (10) and repeated in the book of Revelation (1) of the Son of Man who appears before the heavenly throne of God and is given authority over all the nations. Jesus is transfigured so that he appears as he truly is and as he will be. Jesus receives a foretaste of his full glory. He is assured of what ultimately lies ahead.

Second, Jesus receives a visitation from Moses and Elijah. These are two of Israel’s greatest figures. They represent two portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Law and the Prophets. They come and speak to Jesus about his departure, or exodus in the Greek. In other words, they confirm Jesus’ vocation as the Messiah and his mission to the cross. He is going to be the new Moses to lead God’s people out of their bondage to sin and death through the cross. .

Third, as Moses and Elijah are leaving, a cloud envelopes the disciples. The cloud recalls the very presence of God. When Moses went up on Mount Sinai he entered into this cloud. Once the tabernacle was built, the cloud came of the mountain and entered the Holy of Holies. The Israelites were then led through the desert by this cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. The cloud shows the Israelites that God is with them in and through the desert. The cloud shows Jesus that God himself is leading him to and through the cross.

Fourth, the voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen. Listen to him.” The voice alludes to Psalm 2, in which God proclaims the King to be his son. It recalls Isaiah 42 and identifies Jesus with the Suffering Servant, God’s chosen. And it alludes to Deuteronomy 18 in which God promises Israel a great Prophet to whom Israel must listen. The voice of God again affirms Jesus’ status as his Son. It also recalls the voice at his baptism and assures Jesus of God’s love.

So on the mountain top, as he is praying, God gives Jesus four gifts to sustain carry him through his ministry: He is given a glimpse of his ultimate future in glory; God confirms Jesus’s vocation as the Messiah who is to take up the cross; God assures Jesus that he will be with him; and God affirms Jesus’ status as his Son and his Beloved.

We too may receive the same gifts in prayer. If you approach prayer not just as a time to ask God for things, but as a time to listen to God and to receive from him, you may receive these same gifts. As you pray in silence, contemplating some act of Jesus or some aspect of God, a feeling of wholeness and peace may surround you. You may feel enveloped by the love of God. Maybe you may even hear a still, small voice saying, “You are my daughter. You are my son. I love you.” If you pray the scriptures, meditating on a psalm, you may begin to meditate on what God’s purpose is for you and your vocation. You may be led to something new, or you may feel that your calling is confirmed. When you go to God in prayer in times of distress, you may again feel a sense of peace and wholeness, which is a sense that God is indeed with you, even in your trouble. And in prayer you may get a glimpse of your future in glory.

These are all gifts Jesus receives in prayer. They are gifts that the disciples receive in prayer. We too may also may receive such gifts in prayer. Of course there are other gifts we may receive. And we may receive such gifts at other times, such as when we are singing and praising God, or listening to a sermon, or just reading scripture. But if and when we receive such gifts, we may be tempted to think that these gifts, these experiences, are the purpose of prayer, or the purpose of worship. Such experiences are exhilarating and they make our faith come alive. They sustain us in our faith and in our life before God. But as Moses and Elijah are leaving, Peter offers to pitch some tents, supposedly like the booths Jewish people still erect today during the High Holidays to remember Israel’s time of deliverance through the desert. Peter wants to hold on to this experience. But Luke tells us, “He did not know what he was saying.”

These gifts are not the purpose of prayer. The voice from heaven tells the disciples to listen to Jesus. Obey Jesus.  It is only with such gifts that Jesus was able to carry out his ministry, to exert his powers of healing, to show compassion on the outcast, and ultimately to surrender his life for the life of the world. God gives us such gifts through prayer as well in order to work on our hearts, to turn them from stone to flesh, to infuse them with compassion and love, to give us patience and wisdom, so that we become more and more like Jesus. Paul says that “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.” To be like Christ is not just to be righteous, or sinless, or holy, it is to act like Christ. While mountain top experiences are wonderful and good and necessary for us, Jesus came down off the mountain and set his face toward Jerusalem. We too must accept such gifts as gifts that prepare us and enable us to participate in God’s mission for the world. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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February 24, 2019 Guest Preacher
(No online sermon this week.) There is no audio for this sermon.
February 17, 2019 Prayer from Petition to Contemplation: The Way of the Faithful
(Psalm 1) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Imagine you are walking home after school one day and it is hot outside. Your class room was stuffy. There was no breeze. You climbed aboard the school bus and you are hit by a wave of heat because it had been sitting in the sun all afternoon. You climb off the bus and begin your walk home. The sun glares on your head and you can’t seem to find any shade anywhere.

By the time you finally get home your mouth feels like a desert. Your throat is raspy when you talk. You tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth and your lips feel like sand paper. Your dad takes one look at you and says, “Wow you look hot. I bet I know what you would like.” He reaches into the cupboard and pulls out a bag of goldfish. “Would you like some of these?” You shake your head. “No thanks,” you croak. “How about some mixed nuts?” “Not those either.” “Ah,” he says. “I know exactly what you want.” He reaches into the cupboard and pulls out a glass. He gets a pitcher of water from the refrigerator. He pours you a glass and …. “Ahhhhhh. That’s what I needed.”

When we get thirsty it is our bodies telling us that we need water. Our bodies need lots and lots of water to be healthy. In Psalm 1 we learn that as people we need God’s word, God’s teaching to be healthy. We need to read the bible often and think about it often so that the stories in the Bible teach us who God is and who God wants us to be. In Psalm 1 the Bible, God’s teaching is said to be like a stream of water:

[Pour Water] Blessed is the person whose delight is in the teaching of the Lord, and who meditates on his teaching day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers. [End of Children’s sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

In Palm 1 the psalmist presents us with a contrast between the way of the faithful and the way of the faithless. The psalm begins with a progressive description of the faithless. One might first walk along with the wicked, then stand on the way that sinners regularly tread, and finally the one might take a seat with a group of mockers. The psalmist moves form what might be a casual, one-off interaction, to more and more deliberate action until one is regularly taking council with the wicked.

Notice how the nature of the people progresses as well. The faithless person can’t be counted on because he doesn’t follow through on his commitments to others. He doesn’t care about them. Sinners are those who fail in their responsibilities. To sin is to miss the mark. They are failures at doing what they are supposed to do. Finally, mockers are those who completely disdain others. They are arrogant and refuse any correction from anyone else. They believe they are above all others, so they simply criticize and show contempt for others. Together all three terms describe the nature of the faithless.

The psalm then moves to contrast the faithless with the faithful.  Most translations use the words the wicked and the righteous, but as I have argued a few weeks ago, biblical righteousness is not just about following rules and keeping yourself from doing bad things, it is about relationships. The righteous person is faithful and true to others. God himself is righteous because he is good and loving and faithful to his people and to his creation. God therefore made laws not just so that we would follow them, but so that we would be good and faithful and just to others like him.

So while the faithless are goading each other on in their disdain for others, the faithful are what you might call teachable. The faithful are humble and place themselves under the teaching of the Lord. They delight in the teaching of the Lord. Most translations translate torah as “law,” but the Torah is not just a list of commands and laws. It is the story of God’s dealing with his people. It teaches us of God’s righteousness, his faithfulness to his people and his creation, through the story of God redeeming and watching over Israel. The faithful sink themselves into this story, meditating on it day and night. It becomes the story that the faithful find themselves in. As they reflect on the sorry they allow it to shape how they perceive the world, how they interpret the world, what they value in the world, and so on. The story provides the context for their lives and thus gives meaning and value to their lives. They find their identity as one of God’s people and thus find themselves fed by and drawn into God’s story. They are therefore blessed because they are living in the way of the creator.

Jeremiah 17 serves as a companion text to Psalm 1. Hear the similarities:

[B]lessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,

    whose confidence is in him.

They will be like a tree planted by the water

    that sends out its roots by the stream.

It does not fear when heat comes;

    its leaves are always green.

It has no worries in a year of drought

    and never fails to bear fruit.

 It is likely that Psalm 1 was written later since it serves as an introduction to the Psalms and the Psalms were put together in this format during Israel’s exile in Babylon. The psalmist contrasts those who are teachable with those who are not; Jeremy contrasts those who trust in God with those who trust in humankind. Since the psalmist alludes to and almost quotes Jeremiah, we can conclude that meditating on God’s teaching is akin to trusting in God. The teachable person trusts in the goodness of the teacher and of the materials. She trusts that they will shape her in good and proper ways. Those who trust in God and are teachable are thus like a tree planted by a stream of water. They have a constant source of life. In contrast, the faithless in Psalm 1 are on the move, planning and scheming, grasping after their own gain. The cursed in Jeremiah 17 “draw strength from mere flesh.” Their hearts are turned away from the Lord. The blessed faithful rest in God. They trust. They soak up God’s ways through his word.

Psalm 1 thus serves as an apt introduction to the book of prayers for God’s people even though it isn’t really a psalm. Commentators have noted that Psalm 1 reads more like a chapter from the book of Proverbs than a psalm. It is not a call to praise God. The psalmist does not thank God for anything. He is not in danger from his enemies. He does not cry out for salvation. It is not a lament of the apparent absence of God. God is not even active until the final verse.

Psalm 1 is thus more like a piece of wisdom. It presents us with what life is generally like. The faithless, those who are not rooted in God, go about walking in the way of sinners. They seek companionship with mockers. They are not open to wisdom and so “they are like chaff that the wind blows away.” They have no grounding. And so they are not able to produce anything solid that lasts. When the time of judgment comes, they will not stand for they will be found to have been faithless to others and to have failed in their responsibilities. They will also not be welcome in the assembly of the faithful, those whom the community entrusts to make judgments and decisions for the community such as the council of the church or the elders who sit at the gate in the book of Ruth.

In contrast, this is what life is generally like for the faithful: because the faithful are rooted in God’s story, since they are drawing their life from God’s ways, they will prosper. Their goodness will be evident to others as the life they draw upon from God will produce fruit that is life-giving to others. They will be like a tree planted by streams of water “which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” Like the Blessed in Jeremiah, they will “not fear when heat comes” and they have “no worries in a year of drought.

The psalmist concludes that “the Lord watches over the way of the faithful, but the way of the faithless leads to destruction.” The Lord is gracious and kind to those who seek to follow him. He looks out for those who ground their lives in him. But what is God to do for those who are determined to follow their own way? What is he to do with those who, even worse, seek after the way of sinners and mockers? The psalm remains silent about what God does, but foresees that those who have turned away from the source of true life will find themselves heading towards destruction.

As an introduction to the Psalms, Psalm 1 is not an introduction to the content of the Psalms, rather it is an introduction to how we should read the Psalms. It encourages us to approach God’s word prayerfully and meditatively so that we can receive it as wisdom, as teaching and instruction that will move us to trust in God and to live according to God’s ways. This will sound familiar to a group of us who are reading J. De Waal Dryden’s book, A Hermeneutic of Wisdom. To others this may not sound very revolutionary, but it is not our normal approach to reading scripture.

For the past two hundred years or so, Western Christians have approached scripture with a modern, scientific agenda. We have assumed that what we are supposed to “get” out of a text of scripture, such as Psalm 1, is not a piece of wisdom, but a set of theological truths. A modern reading of Psalm 1 would draw out several theological “facts” such as: sin results from going your own way; God’s grace saves us through the Word of God; those who are saved may then be redirected toward righteousness by God’s Word. We are then supposed to take those abstract theological truths and match them to some more abstract ethical principles or laws. To be a good Christian, for instance, one must have a regular time of prayer and Bible study. We then take those ethical principles and try to determine how they apply to the context of our life. We thus are finally able to apply the scripture to our lives by resolving to take 10 minutes a day to read the Bible.

While a modern approach will teach such truths such as that we are saved by the grace of God, in practice it presumes that what really saves us is correct knowledge and then correct application. To be saved we need to extract the theological truth hidden in the poetry of the psalms or in the narrative of the “historical” books. Then, once we have accepted and believed in that truth, we will change our behavior accordingly.  A modern approach assumes that we humans are mainly thinking beings. While a modern theology will teach that humans sin because they have failed to trust in God – thus salvation comes through faith – it will attempt to get us to accept this by convincing us that it is true. It will seek to change our heads rather than where things have actually gone wrong, with our hearts.

Psalm 1, however, and all of scripture, addresses the heart. Psalm 1 is wisdom, it is guidance for life before God which is presented in poetic imagery. It seeks to move us rather than convince us by contrasting two ways of life with stark metaphors. It moves us away from the dry and fruitless life of faithless mockers that scatters in the afternoon breeze. It calls us to trust that we will be blessed if we turn away from the path of the faithless. It invites us to plant our roots in the Word of God with the promise of a fruitful life that will flow into, through and out of those who trust in the Lord.

Psalm 1 therefore invites us to approach the Psalms and all of scripture prayerfully, both poetically and literally for it says “blessed is the one … whose delight is in the teaching of the Lord and who meditates on his teaching day and night.” It invites us not to scour a biblical story for a theological principle, but to be drawn into the story – just as all stories work.  It invites us not to distill an ethical principle from the poetry of the prophets, but to have the prophet’s prophetic imagination open up our imagination so that we feel God’s grief as we humans continue to trust in ourselves, so that we feel God longing for us to place our trust in him so that we might know true life.

 It invites us to read the letters of the Apostle Paul not so that we can get our theology of the resurrection straight, but so that we can live our lives trusting that, because Jesus did indeed risen from the dead, “he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26).

It invites us to read the gospels not so that we believe the fact that we are sinners whom Jesus came to save, but so that we can walk along with Jesus and see him create a community in which it is the poor and the hungry and those who are hated who are blessed while the well fed, respectable rich are warned that they have already received their reward. Psalm 1 invites us not to master the biblical text, but to sink our roots into the biblical story, and into the biblical poetry, through a prayerful, meditative reading of the text, so that God’s word can master us and bring us life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Almighty God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Give us a thirst for your word that we may desire to drink continually from it, so that our lives may bear the fruit of faith, hope and love. In Jesus name we pray. Amen

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February 10, 2019 Prayer from Petition to Contemplation: Praying in the Midst of Trouble
(Psalm 138) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I would like to talk about prayer, but first let me tell you about two sisters. These sisters were not only sisters, but also the best of friends. They did everything together. They played together. They worked together. They went to school together. They knew each other so well, that when one of them began to say something, the other one would finish the sentence. They knew what each of them thought and how they felt. Have you ever known anyone like that? I have known some people who have been married for years who are something like that. And you know what? Prayer can be something like that.

Now when we think of prayer we often think that it is about us talking to God. We ask him for things. We thank him for things. We praise him. May be ask for forgiveness. A lot of what we do when we pray to God is to talk to God. But is that how we talk to people? When you talk to your parents or to your friend, do you just talk all the time? What else do you do? … You listen too. Sometimes you talk and sometimes you listen. We can listen to God by sitting in silence or by reading some verses from the Bible and just thinking about them. So in prayer we not only talk to God, but we listen too.

But what is truly wonderful about prayer is that we can not only pray to God and we not only listen to God, but God prays with us.  The Apostle Paul says, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” God already knows us. He knows our thoughts and our feelings. He knows us so well that the Spirit can pray for us when we don’t even know what to pray. [End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

How many times have you heard someone in a movie or television show say this? “God, I know I haven’t spoken to you much in a long time. Well, since I was a kid, actually. And I know I haven’t been to church in many years, except maybe for Christmas and funerals and weddings – do those count, by the way? But I am really in a tough spot these days. If you could find your way to helping me out, I promise …”

It is so common a Hollywood scene that it has become a cliché. People who have no relationship with God and maybe even doubt God’s existence turn to God in a time of trouble and just begin asking God for things. If it works, if God answers, all the better. If not, nothing is lost. It seems, at least in Hollywood, that prayer comes easy to people who are in trouble.

But for the person who truly believes in God, for the person who seeks after God, for the person who tries to live her life so as to honor God, prayer in times of trouble can be rather difficult. Commenting on Psalm 138, biblical scholar John Goldingay says that God’s people live within the dynamic tension between trouble and deliverance.[1] The Bible is filled with testimony about how God delivers his people from trouble. But it is also filled with God’s people living in the midst of trouble – sometimes for years, sometimes for generations. Think of the Israelites in Egypt and Babylon. Think of barren Sarah and Rebekah. Think of David running and hiding for years from King Saul. Think of the Apostle Paul and all the time he spent in jail.

The Psalms are therefore filled with psalms similar to 138 in which the psalmist cries to God for help and salvation. These psalms are evidence that Goldingay is right. Faith in God is no guard against experiencing trouble in our lives. God never promises us a life of complete ease, security and safety. To have faith in God is to trust that God is good and that his intentions for you are good even while living in the midst of trouble. Even while experiencing hardship, oppression, persecution, and even to the point of death. But prayer in such times is not easy. Times of trouble can bring doubts, and unanswered questions, and maybe days and months and even years of waiting. In such times, how does one continue in faith? How does one pray in the midst of trouble?

Psalm 138 doesn’t start out sounding like a prayer by one who is in the midst of trouble. Rather, it begins as if it were a psalm of praise to God by someone who has been delivered from trouble. The psalm beings with a section in which the psalmist praises God before the “gods,” the heavenly beings, because he has answered his prayer. In the second section the psalmist calls upon the kings of the earth to join him in praise because God looks upon the lowly. One would expect that in the third section the psalmist would call God’s people to join him in praise, thus extending the movement from the “gods,” to the kings, to ordinary people. A second option might be for the psalmist to turn the focus on himself and the troubles that God has saved him from, thus giving greater detail for the reason to praise God.

But the psalmist takes an unexpected turn. He turns this psalm of praise into a plea for help. While he began with the past – “When I called, you answered me” – he now speaks in the present – “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life. You stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes.” All of a sudden we realize that the psalmist is praying in the midst of trouble. He has not only needed God in the past, he needs God now. And so his prayer shifts from past, to present, and then to the future with a confession of trust – “The Lord will fulfill his purposes for me” for he knows that the Lord’s “steadfast love endures forever.” On this confession, the psalmist can then, finally lift up his plea: “Do not abandon the works of your hands” “Don’t let the deliverance you brought about before go to waste. You saved me before, therefore follow through and save me again.” “Do not abandon the works of your hands.”

Psalm 138 is an example of a prayer in the midst of trouble, but through it the psalmist also reveals why he is able to pray to God in the midst of trouble. First of all we have to admit that the psalmist is not naïve. He has been in trouble before. So while he can trust God because he has saved him before, that also means that the psalmist is not surprised to find himself in trouble again. If we ever find ourselves in that space in which we doubt God’s goodness, or maybe even his existence because of the trouble we experience, this is a good reminder. Many, many other people of faith have experienced trouble –terrible trouble – and have not lost their faith. I say this not to shrug off our doubts, or to say that you should just have faith and get over it, but simply to say that doubts and questions need not lead us in to unbelief. Others have lived through times of trouble without losing faith. perhaps we can too. So first, the psalmist can pray to God because he expects trouble.

Second, the main reason the psalmist prays to God is because God is a God who cares. God is emotionally invested in his creation and his people. In the first stanza the psalmist praises God “with all my heart” because of God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness.” God is not simply glorious and honorable and mighty and above all other gods, he is all those things because he is a God who relates to his creatures. “Steadfast love and faithfulness” imply that God loves someone else steadfastly and truly. There is an object to God’s goodness. In verses 2-3 God has “exalted his name and his word” by answering the call of the psalmist and delivering him from his trouble. The psalmist knows God cares because God has saved him before. Moreover, God’s words, his promises, are followed through by his actions. His word and his name, which is his honor and reputation and thus his glory, is exalted because God does what he says. And what God has said is that he has promised to be God for his people. God, you see, is glorified and honored because he loves us and redeems us.

The psalmist brings these same themes down from the heavens to the earthly realm in the second stanza. He calls upon the kings to join him in praise of God because God exemplifies what it means to be a good and true monarch – “Though the Lord is exalted, he looks kindly on the lowly; though lofty, he sees them from afar.” Not only in Israel, but throughout the Ancient Near East the ideal king was the shepherd of the people, the ruler who cared for the lowly and vulnerable. Once again the psalmist calls upon the kings to praise God for his words in verse 4 which lead to action in verse 6. This God, although he is exalted and lofty, is a loving God who tends his people and his creation as a shepherd watches over his sheep.

The psalmist can turn to God in his time of trouble first because the psalmist knows that we live in a broken world. He expects trouble in life. Second, he prays to God because he knows that God loves his creation and his people. God looks upon the lowly and he answered when I called.

I have called this sermon series, “Prayer from Petition to Contemplation” because I want to encourage us all to see prayer as something more than just asking God for things. As you read through a psalm like this, as you ponder its meaning, as you linger on the words “Though the Lord is exalted, he looks kindly on the lowly,” you begin to spend time listening to God instead of talking to God. Prayer is an invitation to spend time with God.

Prayer can thus be turned form something we do by ourselves to something we do with God. When we are so troubled that we can’t find the words to pray the Apostle Paul encourages us in Romans 8 to know that the Holy Spirit prays for us. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26). We also know from the Gospel of John (17) that before Jesus went to the cross, he prayed for his disciples and the whole church. Moreover the books of Romans (8:34) and Hebrews (7:25) teach us that Jesus, risen and ascended to the throne, continues to intercede for us. Our faith is therefore in a God who not only cares for us, but a God who prays with us and for us.

This opens up a deeper way for us to pray. In his book The Dark Night of the Soul, Gerald May writes, “Though we often think of intercessory prayer as praying to God for the sake of someone else, the contemplatives often sense an invitation to pray with God, to share God’s joy and sorrow, which in turn God is sharing with all creation.”[2] AS we live in the tension between trouble and deliverance our praying can become a reflection, an imitation of God himself. We pray for deliverance. We pray for justice for refugees. We pray for a fair and equitable justice system. We pray for healing for ourselves or a loved one. We pray for a child. Or we pray for the healing of a broken relationship. Sometimes our prayers are answered and we can join the psalmist in saying, “When I called, you answered me. … O Lord, your steadfast love endures forever.” We can then share in God’s joy for God delights in deliverance.

But then there are times when we remain in that tension between trouble and deliverance. It is then, that we can reflect the image of God, because our God longs for things too. He longs for us to love one another. He longs for black lives to matter to us as much as white ones. He longs for the church to be a safe place for women and for children. He longs for nations to seek justice and to love mercy. He longs for us to love him and to walk in his ways. Yet in so many ways we don’t. But God waits and he is filled with sorrow for God loves. And Jesus prays. And the Spirit prays. And it is a mystery why, but God is a long-suffering God who occupies that space between trouble and deliverance with us. In prayer we are invited to speak to God, to listen to God, and to enter into that space between trouble and deliverance to pray with God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.



[1] John Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 3: Psalms 90-150, ed. Tremper Longman III (Baker Academic, 2008), 620.

[2] Gerald G. May, The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth, Reprint edition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2005), 198.

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February 3, 2019 Guest Preacher
(No online sermon this week.) There is no audio for this sermon.
January 27, 2019 Prayer from Petition to Contemplation: The Meditations of My Heart
(Psalm 19) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do you all know what this is? It’s a basketball. Now I could tell you how to play the game of basketball. I could tell you that to play the game you have to dribble the ball, or bounce it up and down, you have to pass the ball to your teammates, and you have to shoot the ball into the hoop to score a point. I could also show you how to dribble, and pass, and shoot. But you wouldn’t know how to play basketball until you learned how to do all those things.

And that is the way it is with a lot of things in life. I could tell you and show you how to play the piano, but you wouldn’t know how to play the piano until you actually do it. I could tell you and show you how to sing, but you wouldn’t know how to sing until you actually learn to sing. Well it’s the same way with loving God and with knowing that God loves us. We can say that we love God, but we don’t really love God until we praise him and give him thanks for all that he has made and all the ways he provides for us. We can say that we love God, but we don’t really love God until we obey God’s commands.

But the wonderful thing is when we do those things, when we praise and thank God for who he is and what he has done, and when we obey him and walk in his ways we come to know that God loves us. That’s because when we praise and thank God for what he has done, we see that he has done so much for us. It is sort of like when you thanks your mom or your dad for the dinner they cooked and you tell them how good it is, you know that they cooked it because they love you. And when we obey God’s commands, we come to know that God’s commands are good for us. We come to know that God gives us his commands because he loves us and he knows what is best for us.

And then, when we know God loves us because we know all that he has done for us, we can know God’s love in his forgiveness. Sometimes, even though we want to and we try to follow God’s commands, we don’t do very well. Sometimes we disobey God. But then, because we have known God’s love in these other ways, we can be confident that we can ask God for forgiveness. And then we will know God loves us as we receive his forgiveness.
[End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

“Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? Who may live on your holy mountain” the psalmist asks in Psalm 15. “The one whose walk is blameless,” he answers. In Psalm 24 the psalmist asks, “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?” “The one who has clean hands and a pure heart.”

Last week I argued that the heart of prayer is coming to rest in the steadfast love of God. The center of prayer is thus knowing and experiencing the very presence of God. The questions posed by the psalmist point to the same thing – “Who may dwell in your tabernacle?” “Who may stand in his holy place?” Who may be in the presence of God? What does it take?

While the psalmist seems to give a simple answer after asking the question – only those who are blameless and pure may stand in the presence of God – the structure of the psalms from Psalm 15 to Psalm 24 indicates that the answer is a bit more complex. Moreover, if you read Psalm 14 the simple answer falls apart. “The fools says in his heart, ‘There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are evil; there is no one who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on all humankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no on who does good, no not even one.

It is no wonder then that the psalmist next asks, “Well, then who can dwell in your tabernacle? Who can live on our holy mountain? If all have done evil, if all are corrupt, if no one seeks God, who can stand in God’s holy place?” Psalm 14 complicates the simple answers of Psalms 15 and 24 – if all are corrupt, is there anyone who is blameless? Is there anyone who is pure?

It has been suggested that Psalms 15 through 24 form a Hebrew literary device called a chiasm. A chiasm is series of repeated words, phrases, or themes that form something like a pyramid (see Illustration #1, turning it on its side). As we have seen, Psalms 15 and 24 ask the question, “Who may be in God’s presence,” and provide the initial answer, “Those who are blameless and pure.” As you read through the next psalms it is as if the psalmist is climbing up the holy mountain toward God’s presence through various kinds of prayer. Psalms 16 and 23 are psalms that seek God’s refuge and/or express trust that God will keep one safe. Psalms 17 and 22 are lament psalms in which the psalmist cries out for help in the face his enemies. And psalms 18 and 21 are psalms of praise for God’s redemption of the psalmist in 18 and of the king in 21. The indication seems to be that those who are blameless and pure demonstrate this by trusting in God, crying to him for help, and then praising God for his deliverance.

But what then do we find at the top of the pyramid? What happens in psalms 19 and 20? In Psalm 20 we find another mini chiasm. The psalm begins with a section in which the psalmist blesses the king, “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress”. The psalm ends not with a whole section but with only one verse with a plea that echoes the blessing: “Lord, give victory to the King. Answer us when we call?” At the top or center of this mini chiasm, then is a section in which the psalmist confesses complete trust in God: “This I know, the Lord gives victory to his anointed.”

In Psalm 19 we find not a chiasm, but something like a rhythmic pyramid (see Illustration #2, and think of turning the psalm upside down). You will notice that I have inverted the psalm, so it reads from bottom to top. Meter is very important in Hebrew poetry. Poetic lines are usually made up of two and sometimes three smaller lines, that’s why you often see every other line indented. The point is that the two or three lines go together, expanding the meaning of each, interpreting the meaning of each. Sometimes words in one or both phrases will carry over into the other. Each line usually has a similar number of accents or “beats” and the poem will often thus display a rhythm such as 3:3, or 3:2. The poet can thus shape the poem rhythmically, adding emphasis by breaking the rhythm or showing a change in theme by changing the rhythm.

Psalm 19 begins with line pairs with 4 accents each, or 8 in the verse. It soon moves down from 8 to 7 and then ends the first section of the psalm with a line pair of 3 accents per line, or 6 beats. We can get a feel for the rhythmic nature of the psalm even in English when we read verses 7 to 9 regarding the law of the Lord. We can sense a longer first line and a shorter second line of each pair. In the Hebrew the pattern is 3:2. The peak of the pyramid comes in verse 10: “They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold. They are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.” These lines have a 2:2 rhythm, or 4 beats per line pair which is half the number of beats of the beginning of the psalm. At the top of the pyramid this pattern is broken and the rhythmic structure becomes more varied.

So what do we make of all this? What is the point? We often approach this psalm in terms of God’s revelation. In the Reformed tradition we like to talk of the two books of revelation – God reveals himself in nature, through creation and through scripture, the law. The problem with this is that while sometimes “law” or “torah” in the Hebrew refers to the first five books of the Bible, and thus by extension the whole of God’s story with Israel, the whole revelation of scripture, here it is pretty clear that the psalmist means the laws and commandments and decrees of God. The psalmist is not talking about all of scripture. The point of the psalm is therefore not that there are two books of revelation.

The first section, however, is about how the whole creation reveals the glory and knowledge of God. The psalmist repeats a technique we saw a couple of weeks ago in which two extremes indicate not just the extremes but also everything in between. The heavens in verse 1 are the transcendent heavens, the heavenly heavens, while the skies are the “firmament” from Genesis 1, the earthly heaven, thus all the heavens declare God’s glory. In verse 2 both day and night, and thus all of time, reveals knowledge of God. Their voice goes out not just into “all the earth,” but also to “the ends of the earth.” The whole creation declares the glory and the knowledge of God.

The psalmist then presents the sun as a particular example. Its brilliance reflects the glory of God as it runs rejoicing across the heavens shedding its warmth on all things. God’s glory is thus revealed in the life that is provided by and supported by the sun and given to all creation.

This first section on the glory and knowledge of God revealed in the creation thus forms the foundation on which the next section is built. God’s glory is revealed through the life-giving creation, but also through his life-giving law. The law of God is perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure, and firm. Therefore it refreshes the soul, gives joy and light. It makes wise the simple. In short the law gives life for biblical wisdom is the practical knowledge of how best to live within God’s creation. To have wisdom, to obey God’s laws, is to live with the grain of the universe.

So the psalmist proclaims how the whole creation demonstrates the knowledge and glory of God. He then gives an example of how the sun in particular does this by shedding its life-giving warmth upon all things. The psalmist then proclaims how God’s law also gives life to human beings. He then looks around for a particular example. He looks around for a being who walks according to God’s ways, a being who is blameless and pure and so can stand in God’s presence, reflect his glory, and reveal knowledge about God.

But the psalmist asks “Who can discern their own errors?” The palmist recognizes that he has not been pure and blameless. He has not kept the life-giving law of God. He has not lived according to the grain of the universe. He is not the example he is looking for. Verse 12 can also be translated, “Who can discern his own wanderings?” Why, the psalmist asks, do we humans continually turn away from what we know is good? The psalmist therefore pleads with God. “Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins.” Which can also be translated, “Keep your servant from insolent people (who will lead him astray). Either way the psalmist seeks God’s protection, pleading, “may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.”

The psalmist recognizes that the only way to be pure and blameless is to cast himself into the merciful and gracious hands of God. The only way to be an example of God’s life giving ways and to reveal his glory, is to become a revelation of his grace and mercy. If the heart of prayer is to know and experience God’s steadfast love, we come to know that steadfast love through God’s grace and mercy. Having cast himself into the grace of God, the psalmist can only add one more plea: “May they be pleasing – the words of my mouth / and the meditations of my heart – in your sight.” And then a final confession of trust, “O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

If we look back at illustration 1, then, we can see that at the center of the chiasm, or the top of the pyramid, we have two psalms that center on absolute trust and confidence in the grace of God. In Psalm 19 the psalmist casts himself onto the mercy and grace of God. In Psalm 20 the psalmist blesses the King with the assurance that he can call upon God for deliverance, followed by a confession of trust, and a plea that God would make good on the blessing and the confession – “Lord, give victory to the king! Answer us when we call!”

Sometimes we can approach the spiritual disciplines and prayer as techniques to place us in God’s presence. Or maybe we see prayer or scripture reading as a duty we have to fulfill to stay in God’s good graces. We might approach them as if we are trudging up a mountain trying to obtain God’s favor. The funny things is, however, that if we actually practice prayer and seek after God, we will likely come to that point in which we reach the top of the mountain and come to the same realization as the psalmist. “I am not pure. I am not blameless. I have not followed the live giving law of God. I have not lived according to the grain of the universe.”

It is then that God invites us to cast ourselves upon his grace. If we do, if we give up attempting to earn our own salvation, if we let go of our need to maintain control of our lives, we will find ourselves falling into God’s steadfast love, receiving his mercy, and having his grace fall upon us. We can then descend down the mountain, continuing in prayer and the other spiritual disciplines in order to live our lives in the world as one who continues to live in the presence of God delighting in his law and rejoicing in his creation. We then live and play and work in the world as one whom God considers pure and blameless, not because we are pure and blameless, but because have come to know God’s grace and his steadfast love. In this way our lives become revelations of the glory and knowledge of God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Silence

Almighty and merciful God,

In the beginning you spoke

  and by your word all things came into being.

     You redeemed Israel from slavery

       and gave them new life through your law.

           Grant us eternal life in your presence

             through your steadfast love and mercy.

     May the words of our mouths

       and the meditations of our hearts

       be pleasing in your sight.

O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen

 

Illustration 1: Structure of Psalms 16-24

15 Who may dwell in your temple? Those who … are blameless

16 … trust in God – Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.

17 … cry for help – Hear me, Lord, my plea is just”

18 … praise God – The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.

19 … ?

20 … May the Lord answer you when you are in distress

This I know, The Lord gives victory to his anointed

Lord, answer us when we call?

21 … praise God – The king rejoices in your strength, Lord.

22 … cry for help –You are my strength, come quickly to help me (v.19)

23 … trust in God  – “The Lord is my shepherd.”

24 Who may stand in your holy place? Those who … are pure

 

Illustration 2:  Psalm 19 – Accents or “beats” per line

O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

and the meditations of my heart -  in your sight

May they be pleasing - the words of my mouth

5      Then I will be blameless,                            innocent of great transgression.

5      Keep your servant also from willful sins;       may they not rule over me.

4      But who can discern their own errors?  Forgive my hidden faults.

6      By them your servant is warned;                      in keeping them there is great reward.

4      they are sweeter than honey,                    than honey from the honeycomb.

4      They are more precious than gold,                  than much pure gold;

5      The decrees of the Lord are firm,                     and all of them are righteous.

5      The fear of the Lord is pure,                              enduring forever.

5      The commands of the Lord are radiant,  giving light to the eyes.

5      The precepts of the Lord are right,          giving joy to the heart.

5      The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,       making wise the simple.

5      The law of the Lord is perfect,                  refreshing the soul.

6      and makes its circuit to the other;           nothing is deprived of its warmth.

7      like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens

7      In the heavens God has pitched .             it is like a bridegroom coming out

a tent for the sun of his chamber,

7      Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,     their words to the ends of the world.

7      They have no speech, they use no words;       no sound is heard from them.

8      Day after day they pour forth speech;    night after night they reveal knowledge.

8      The heavens declare the glory of God;   the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

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January 20, 2019 Prayer from Petition to Contemplation: The Heart of Prayer
(Psalm 36) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do you know what these are? [a handful of letters] But do you know what happened to them? We sent these letters out to a whole bunch of people who used to attend Hessel Park Church. Inside there is a newsletter that tells people what has been happening here at the church over the past year. Well these letters didn’t get to where they were supposed to go. Most of them were sent back to us because the people moved away so they no longer live at the address we have for them. Some of them were sent back because we forgot to put a stamp on the envelope.

But do you know how they got sent back to us? How did the mail carrier know to bring these letters back to Hessel Park Church? Look up in this corner and you can see that our address is right there. That is how you are supposed to mail a letter. You put the stamp here, the address you want the letter to go to here, and your own address here. That way if there ever is a problem, if the people have moved, or you made a mistake with the address, or you didn’t put enough stamps on the letter, the letter will get sent back to its home.

In Psalm 36 the psalmist says, “How priceless is your steadfast love, O God! Heavenly beings and human beings take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (7). If you know God’s steadfast love, if you know that God loves you and that he is always faithful to you, then it is like have a return address printed on your heart. Wherever you go, whatever happens to you, you will always be able to return home. Because our true home is in the love of God. [End of children’s sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Last week we saw how words have power. Psalm 29 bears witness to the powerful voice of the Lord which created the universe by bounding up the primordial waters of chaos and which still rings out over the creation, commanding the forces of nature, and bringing the blessings of strength and peace to God’s people. Last week we focused on how God’s words have power over the creation and over us. God’s voice and spirit empowered Jesus at his baptism when the Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove and a voice rang out from heaven. “You are my Son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” God’s voice rings in our hearts through our baptism, assuring us that he loves us and that his desire is to bless us. God’s words are powerful.

This morning I would like us to consider how our words are powerful too. Yes, they are powerful in that they can be used to harm others. And yes our words are also powerful in that they can be used for good, to console, comfort, affirm and love others. But our words are also powerful for good or ill with regard to ourselves.

Psalm 36 begins with what might be called an anatomy of wicked speech. Translators, however, can’t agree on verse 1.. The NIV and the New King James read something like, “An oracle is within my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked.” The King James and ASV read, “The transgressions of the wicked sayeth within my heart.” And the NRSV “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts.”

Old Testament scholar John Goldingay notes that the word for speak is “utterance.” The reason this causes translators so much trouble is that it is mostly used in prophetic writings such as in, “ thus says the Lord,” or an “an oracle of the prophet.”  It makes no sense, therefore, to connect this word to the wicked. The wicked are not supposed utter the words of God. Goldingay therefore translates the phrase, “The rebellious utterance of the faithless.”[1] The psalmist uses “utterance” to highlight the truly wicked nature of the words of the wicked. The psalmist is therefore deeply concerned with the utterance of the wicked. He says, “it is in the midst of my heart.” We would say that their words are ringing in our ears. Their words are churning up his insides.

Does this every happen to you? An adversary criticizes you in a way that twists the truth and makes you look bad in the eyes of others. Her words swirl around inside you like a tempest. You hear the words of some politician on the television. You know that he is lying through his teeth, and so his words remain unsettled in your heart. You can’t stop dwelling on the words because you don’t’ know how they are going to pan out. How will they affect your life? What kinds of actions will they lead to?

The psalmist is worried about the words of the wicked first of all because of their effect on the wicked themselves. The boastful, rebellious words of the faithless first of all deceive not others but the faithless themselves. Verse 2, “For it, the words, flatters and deceives them in their own eyes.” They fool themselves into thinking that their lies and boasts won’t be “found out and opposed.” We see the result of this in verse 1, “There is no fear of God before their eyes,” which is why Goldingay calls these folks the “faithless,” pinpointing the nature of their wickedness.

In verse 3 the psalmist spells out the nature of their words more clearly. Their words are “wicked and deceitful” so they lead to a failure to act in wise and good ways. The psalmist helps define “wicked and deceitful” by contrasting them to “wise and good.” That which is wicked is not wise for wisdom is that which conforms to God’s ways. That which is good does conform to God’s ways and so the good is also truthful. That which is wicked is therefore also deceitful.  In verse 4 the failure to act in good ways leads the faithless to begin getting ready to commit evil. “Even on their beds they plot evil; they commit themselves to a sinful course and do not reject what is wrong.”

The psalmist notes this progression from the boastful, deceitful, and rebellious words to the plotting of evil and then to actual harmful and hateful actions. In verse 11 the psalmist lays out his fears before God and so he pleads to God, “May the foot of the proud not come against me, nor the hands of the wicked drive me away.” If you remember from the last couple of weeks, God’s justice and righteousness where characterized by God lifting up the vulnerable and being faithful to his people. Goodness raises people up and gathers them in. Here the psalmist fears that the wicked will push him down and “drive him away.”

The psalmist sees how the rebellious boastful words of the wicked harm themselves in that the words deceive the wicked and then lead them toward doing wicked things. The psalm concludes in verse 12 with how the words of the wicked may not only lead to the harm of others, but also to a sad fate for themselves. “See how the evildoer lies fallen – thrown down, not able to rise!” One of the things that troubles people about the Psalms is verses such as verse 12. We become uncomfortable when the psalmist’s fear of or anger against the wicked leads him to call upon God to bring harm to his enemies. Almost always, however, when the psalmist does this, the psalmist simply asks that the evil deeds the wicked plan to do or are doing against him fall back upon the wicked. The psalmist fears the attempts of the faithless to push him down and drive him away, so he prays that this fate would be turned around upon the wicked themselves. Ultimately the wicked words of the faithless lead them to do wicked things only to have those same things happen to them. Words have power not only to harm others but also ourselves.

Notice, however, that the conclusion of the psalm includes verse 10 as well. The palmist compares his own voice with the voice of the faithless. While the faithless utter wicked and deceitful things, which demonstrate rebelliousness against God, the psalmist turns to God for help because he proclaims the goodness of God: “Continue your steadfast love to those who know you, your faithfulness to the upright in heart.” While the words of the faithless flatter themselves, the words of the psalmist praise the God of heaven and declare the psalmist’s faith in the Lord. The real contrast is thus between the faithlessness of the wicked and the faithfulness of God.

This then gets at the main theme of the psalm – God’s steadfast love demonstrates his faithfulness to his people. The main body of the poem, verses 5-9 consists of two smaller sections. Verses 5-7a proclaim the nature of God’s steadfast love and verses 7b -9 declare the results of God’s steadfast love.

In verses 5-7a the psalmists uses a common technique of Hebrew literature in which two poles, or ends of things, are mentioned to indicate not just the ends, but everything in between. The heavens in 5a refer to what lies beyond the world we live in, while the skies to the highest portions of our world – thus all that is above us, all the heavens, both the heavenly heavens and the earthly heavens. In verse 6 the highest mountains are the highest point of the earth, and the depths are the lowest point of the of the earth, so the psalmist includes both the heights and the depths and all that lies in between. God’s steadfast love and truthfulness and faithfulness and justice encompass the whole created order, the whole earth and the whole of the heavens.

As we saw a couple of weeks ago in psalm 72, and earlier in this psalm, the pairing of words defines and expands the meaning of those words. In verse 5 we therefore see that God’s steadfast love is truthful. It conforms to reality for God’s love is the basis of reality. All things that are flow out of God’s steadfast love. I argued two weeks ago that God’s righteousness is displayed through his faithfulness to his people. Here Goldingay has translated righteousness as faithfulness. Once again in verse 6 we find this word, righteous faithfulness, paired with God’s justice. God demonstrates his righteous faithfulness to his people by executing his justice – lifting up the poor and protecting the vulnerable. We see another theme repeated at the end of verse 6. God’s loving, faithful, just power is purposeful for the Lord “preserves both people and animals” which means all living creatures. The psalmist ends this mini-section returning to the theme: How priceless is your steadfast love, O God.”

In the next section the psalmist expands on the purposefulness of God’s steadfast love. A creaturely pair of opposites “heavenly beings and human beings” expands the scope of God’s care. Here we can assume that human beings are representing the animals mentioned in verse 6 for humans were made to be stewards over creation. Just as God’s steadfast love, truthfulness, faithfulness, and justice extend from the heavenly heavens to the lowest depths of the earth, so they are applied to all those creatures who inhabit the created order from the heavenly beings to humans to the lowest of animals. For all these creatures “take refuge in the shadow of [God’s] wings”

In verses 8 and 9 the psalmist contrasts the wicked actions of the faithless to the loving actions of a faithful God. The wicked push people down and drive them away. God, in verse 8, invites and gathers all creatures into his temple, God’s house. There God treats them to a feast, but not just any feast, an abundant feast with “drink from your river of delights.”  God is not only a refuge for any and all, he is “the fountain of life” for “in your light we see light.”

Now we see the full contrast. The rebellious words of the faithless lead them towards deceit and lies, to the plotting of evil, and finally to actual deeds of evil – putting down and driving away the weak and vulnerable. In contrast the faithful words of the psalmist proclaim the steadfast love of the Lord who demonstrates truth and justice and faithful righteous by gathering in any and all creatures who need refuge and by blessing them with abundant life. The rebellious words of the faithless lead to their own eventual destruction. Their evil plots fall upon themselves. The words of the psalmist, however, lead the psalmist to trust in the steadfast love of God and thus lead the psalmist to a place of refuge, a place where he can call upon God as the faithless act against him.

One of the difficulties we may have in reading the Psalms or praying the Psalms is that we may find it hard to identify with the situation of the psalmist. Who of us identifies with verse 11? Who feels the foot of an oppressor pressed up against her neck? Who feels the hand of the powerful driving him away? But if we don’t identify with the situation of the psalmist personally, we certainly can identify many who would. The United Nations Refugee Agency maintains that there are roughly 25.5 million refugees in the world, over half of whom come from Syria, Afghanistan and the Sudan. In addition they claim there are over 40 million people who are internally displaced within their own country and over 3 million people who are seeking asylum. We have all seen the pictures of those from Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador seeking asylum at the borders of the United States. By praying through this psalm, we can pray that the feet of those who are trying to keep them down may not come against them. And that the hands that are trying to push them out of their own homes and away from places of refuge would fail.

We can also recognize those in our time who speak out against those in need of refuge. The word of those who use deceit and foolish talk to pervert the cause of justice for their own gain churn around in our hearts. We can pray that those who utter such things may have their plans thwarted by God and come to nothing so that justice may be done. Just as the psalmist speaks mainly not about himself or his own needs but about the character and nature of God, the psalm invites us to turn away from our own needs, to think of the needs of others, and to meditate upon the steadfast love of God which is for all people and all his creatures.

We thus come to what I believe is the heart of prayer. Sometimes you may see the word “steadfast love” as “loving kindness.” Most translations go with “steadfast love” here in order to emphasize the faithful aspect of God’s love. God’s love is the bedrock of the psalm and thus the bedrock of the life of the psalmist. The psalmist trusts in the love of God for it is truthful, faithful, righteous, and just. It is on the rock of God’s love that the psalmist stands as he faces the threatening foot and hands of the wicked and seeks refuge in God.

This psalm then not only invites us to pray for others. It invites us to come to the heart of prayer - the rock of God’s steadfast love. Perhaps you don’t feel vulnerable today as the psalmist does. Perhaps you are not threatened today by the foot of an oppressor, but the psalm invites us to recognize that we are all, ultimately, equally vulnerable. Not one of us is invincible. Not one of us is self-sufficient. One day we may be tossed into a situation in which we need a place of refuge – a place of physical refuge, or of financial refuge, of emotional refuge, or of spiritual refuge. We move towards the heart of prayer by voicing our trust in the steadfast love of God and simply by experiencing our trust in the steadfast love of God, so that God begins to take up residence in our hearts.

The true heart of prayer, however, is the recognition that we are all, already in that place of vulnerability where we need the refuge of God’s steadfast love. The heart of prayer is this turn away from trust in our own resources, trust in our own “goodness,” trust in our own abilities, to resting in the only thing that give us security, safety, and even life itself – the steadfast love of God. It is then that we truly experience that shadow of God’s wings hovering over us giving us the felt knowledge of a place of refuge. It is then that we find that we are truly at home in the temple of God’s love. And there we begin to feast on the abundance of God’s goodness and drink from his river of delights. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Almighty Creator, your steadfast love reaches to the heavens,

            Your truthfulness to the skies,

Your faithfulness is like the highest mountains

            And your mercy is greater than the depths.

Turn our eyes upon you

So that we might rest in your blessings

            And bear witness to your goodness.

Through Jesus Christ

            who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

            One God, now and forever. Amen.



[1] John Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 1: Psalms 1-41, ed. Tremper Longman III (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), pp. 505-513.

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January 13, 2019 Prayer from Petition to Contemplation: The Voice of the Lord
(Psalm 29) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] There is a saying that goes like this: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Have you ever heard that saying before? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” We often say this when someone has been teasing someone else. Maybe someone calls you a name or makes fun of you. Someone might say this to remind you that just because someone says something mean about you, it doesn’t mean it is true. You can choose to ignore what someone says about you.

Sometimes this saying can be helpful, but I am not certain that it is fully true. Words do hurt, don’t they? It is one thing if someone you don’t know very well says something mean, but it’s another thing if someone you care about says something that hurts you. Words have the power to cause people harm. We have to be careful how we use our words. We don’t want to use our words to hurt others, right? But if words can hurt others, it also means that words have power for good too. When we say kind things to people, words have the power to make others feel good about themselves. When you tell your parents you love them, I am sure that it makes their day.

In our gospel lesson this morning John the Baptist baptizes Jesus in the River Jordan. And as Jesus was praying, it says that “heaven opened …. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.’” Words are powerful. Even Jesus needed to hear his heavenly Father tell him that he loved him.

And you know what? The same thing happens to us at our baptism. Now we don’t actually hear a voice from heaven, but when we are baptized it is a sign that God claims us as his children. It means that God says to us, “You are my son. You are my daughter. I love you.” Now I know that you haven’t been baptized yet, but your parents have. God has claimed them as his children. And just as your grandparents love you because you are their child’s daughter, so God loves you because you are his child’s daughter. So when you come to church on Sundays, and when I pour water into this bowl, listen to God saying to you, “I love you.” Those are powerful words that we all need to hear. [End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

The psalmist envisions the heavenly beings assembled in the heavenly temple to worship the God of creation. It’s possible that the heavenly beings witnessed the creation of the universe. They were there in the beginning when all was a formless void, a great sea over which the breath of God hovered. They heard the powerful voice of the Lord speak out over the waters and watched as the waters parted into the waters above and the waters below. They heard the voice of the Lord speak again and the waters below parted so that the earth appeared.

Now they continue to listen to the voice of the Lord as it calls forth a thunderstorm. The storm barrels down upon the land of Israel from the north. The winds bend and break the giant cedars of Lebanon. The storm stirs up the wild animals on Mount Hermon. The skies light up and the winds howl as it roars through Samaria, down through Judea and off to the south into the Desert of Kadesh leaving a path of fallen trees in its wake. “And all in his temple cry, ‘Glory.’”

In the silence, after the storm, the psalmist listens as the heavenly beings answer his call and ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name

The Lord sits enthroned over the flood,

The Lord is enthroned as King forever.

The Lord gives strength to his people

The Lord blesses his people with peace.” (10-11)

The heavenly beings in this psalm, as elsewhere in the Old Testament, are literally called “the sons of the gods” in the Hebrew. While the Old Testament is clear that there is only one, true God, it does testify to the existence of other spiritual beings. There are hints that some of these beings may be assigned to watch over the various nations. They may have various powers themselves, but here, these heavenly beings are paying homage to the one, true God. They proclaim that this one, true God is all powerful. He reigns over the primordial waters which symbolized chaos. He reigns over the powers of nature. He simply speaks and the waters and the winds and the rains and the thunder and lightning obey.

The psalmist thus hints at a comparison between the God of Israel and the gods of the pagan nations. In the creation stories of the nations that surround Israel, the gods have to struggle and battle with Chaos in order to overcome her. The voice of the Lord, however, is over the waters. The various gods each claim a particular place within the creation. There is a storm god, a god of the wind, a god of the sea and so on. The heavenly beings in the psalm ascribe all these powers to the Lord.

The heavenly beings display no powers themselves in the psalm. They act only as a congregation of witnesses to the glorious power of God. They proclaim that the God whose spirit hovered over the primordial waters now sits enthroned over any remnants of those chaotic waters. “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood,” they proclaim. Last week we saw how God’s executes his justice by watching over and lifting up the weak and vulnerable, and that he displays his righteousness through his faithfulness to his people Israel and through Israel to all the nations. The heavenly beings now testify that God’s power and authority has purpose. God sits enthroned over the chaotic waters of the flood in order to give strength to his people, in order to bless his people with peace. While the Psalm focuses on Israel, the presence of the heavenly beings encourages us to fill in the blanks. The Lord blesses his people with peace in order to bless the nations with peace.

In our secular world we no longer speak much of heavenly beings. We no longer ascribe the power of the wind and the rain to various gods. Yet we remain surrounded by, pressed in by, sometimes overwhelmed by forces that seem transcendent. The market report comes on every morning at 6:50 and I hear about how the market forces are moving stocks up or down, how the forces of supply and demand are moving the prices of various commodities, and how the labor market is driving wages up or down. We are moved by numerous isms - nationalism, environmentalism, patriotism, socialism – either in pursuit of their goals or in fear of them. Personally we are motivated by desires that sometimes seem larger than ourselves – love, hate, envy, fear, the desire for success. While we have cut ourselves off from the transcendent in this secular age, we still feel pressed by forces beyond our control.

The psalmist reminds us that the Lord God sits enthroned over all these forces that threaten to overwhelm us, to control us, or to misguide us. God need only speak and they will flee away like the calf skipping in Lebanon. The psalmist invites us to sit before the throne of God with the calm assurance that he reigns over all creation, and that he blesses his people with strength and peace. The psalmist invites us into a space of prayer.

Last week I encouraged us to engage in prayer through meditation, to move beyond prayer as mere petition, to something that that is more than just asking God for things. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century mystic, taught that there were three stages of the life of prayer and of the spiritual life in general which she called three islands. On the first island prayer mainly takes the form of petitions and the rote prayers we learn in church or at the table before a meal. On this island God is experienced as and believed to be distant from us, up there in heaven. We call out to the God who is up there so that he might pay attention to us down here.

Last week I encouraged you to begin your prayers with meditation and then to move back to petition. On the second island prayer mainly takes the form of meditation. While Teresa speaks of three islands, it is not as if we don’t move back and forth between them. Spiritual growth and transformation is not a linear process and no matter how much we grow, there will always be a time and place for petitionary prayer, but on the second island prayer becomes more and more meditative. Likewise a person begins to experience God within themselves. One senses the leading and guiding of the Spirit. Not always. Not every minute. But at times one becomes conscious of God’s presence within.

I have named this sermon series after the progression of these three islands for on the third island one experiences prayer as contemplation. In contemplative prayer there is less and less actual thought. One is not meditating on the words of scripture or the character of God. One simply is aware of God’s presence and one contemplates by simply resting in that presence. On this island one experiences God more and more in terms of union with God.

Before I continue let me state a few caveats. First, while these islands speak of a progression of prayer and of spiritual transformation, I don’t want to suggest that this path of meditative and contemplative prayer is the only route to spiritual transformation. There are plenty of other saints in the history of the Christian church who did not follow Teresa of Avila or the other mystics. Hear this as an invitation and not a mandate. Second, while I am speaking from some personal experience, I am by all accounts still a novice. Each of us follows our own path in spiritual transformation so we can learn from each other. Third, the path one travels in spiritual formation is always a response to God’s gracious invitation and is not something that one can manufacture or control. It is, therefore, non-linear, not always moving “forward” so to speak, and is filled with fits and starts and what seems like backsliding.

Fourth, if you are seeking after God, if you are desiring to be transformed into the image of Christ, you are on that path where you need to be. God directs and guides this process. While I have heard God’s invitation to meditative and contemplative prayer for years, I had to be prepared to be able to answer the invitation. When I came here I was so extroverted the thought of sitting alone in silence terrified me. But after years of studying scripture, preparing worship, writing sermons, reading books on theology, and fits and starts of meditative prayer, all alone in my study, I have become more at home by myself and more comfortable with silence. I had to be changed in order to answer the invitation. And it is not as though I am more a child of God than I was before. I am not more saved than I was 17 years ago. But by God’s grace I am being transformed.

These islands, you see, are not just different techniques of prayer that one can learn. They are experiences of prayer that coincide with spiritual growth and transformation. Our petitionary prayers, for instance, particularly when one is spiritually young, are often focused on our needs and our desires. As one matures spiritually, our prayers are less and less driven by our ego. This is why prayer as meditation is the next step for our meditation is not upon ourselves but on God and God’s word. As a person matures spiritually, the old, ego driven and also sinful self, begins to die away. This is what Paul talks about in the dying of the old self and what Jesus speaks of when he calls us to deny ourselves and take up our cross. As one experiences prayer as contemplation, the old ego driven self disappears as one totally surrenders to God and to God’s presence.

The psalmist invites us into that space of prayer where we can begin to make this journey from one island to the next. He invites us to rest as though we were before the throne of God filled with the knowledge that God reigns over all things. He invites us into that space where we trust that God protects us and that he desires to bless us. It is when we enter that space of trust that we can begin letting go of our ego-driven self. We can begin dying to our old selves which are so tempted to follow after the “gods” of our world’s isms and our own sinful desires.

This space is much like that space that Jesus occupies as he is praying after his baptism. It is in this space that we too can hear the voice of God – the powerful, comforting, gracious voice of God – saying, “You are my daughter. You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” These are powerful words that we all need to hear. These are the words that enable us to die to ourselves so that Christ may be born in us and that our lives may proclaim the glory of God. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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January 6, 2019 Prayer from Petition to Contemplation: Global Flourishing Justice
(Psalm 72) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s worship] Once upon a time there was a little girl named Tanya. As she and her mother walked to the bus stop on the first day after the Christmas holidays her mother asked her if she was looking forward to going back to school or if she was sad that the holidays were over. “Both,” Tanya said. “I liked seeing all my cousins, and my aunts and uncles, and Grandma and Grandpa, too. I liked the presents and the cookies and all the singing, but I miss my friends. I like learning about numbers and letters.” “What do you like most about school?” her mom asked as the bus pulled up. “Art class,” she said as she climbed aboard. “I like coloring and painting and making things.” And she ran down the aisle to find her seat.

On the way home from the bus stop, Tanya’s mom asked her how her day went. “Good and bad,” she said. “The kids on the bus teased me. They made fun of my pig tails and my coat and even my new shoes.” “How did that make you feel?” her mom asked. Tanya stopped and looked at a bush that they were passing. “Like this,” she said. [Indicates a dried and shriveled up poinsettia] “But the rest of the day was good,” she said. “Maria and I worked on our letters together and I played with Tyquan and Maya during play time. But best of all Miss Johnson told me she really like my painting.”  “And how did that make you feel?” her mom asked. Tanya stopped again and pointed to another plant. “Like this,” she said. [Indicates a healthy poinsettia]

People are a lot like plants. Plants need water and soil and sunshine. When they get what they need, they grow and they look full and green and colorful. When they don’t get these things, they shrivel up, or they turn yellow, and they look scraggly. Plants need water, soil and sunshine; People need kindness and friendship and love.

In our Psalm today the psalmist asks God to teach the King how to rule with justice and righteousness. That is, how to rule over the people with goodness and kindness. If the king does that, the psalmist says the land will grow and produce lots of fruit. It will be like this [healthy poinsettia]. When people treat each other well and love one another, then all of us do better. We grow and are able to do good things.

Now sometimes people are kind and loving to us, and sometimes they are not. But God always loves us. God always loves us because he wants us to grow and do good things. He also loves us because he wants us to love others so they too can grow and do good things. He wants us all to be like this. [End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Over the Advent season we looked at the spiritual discipline of waiting. For those of you who were not here on Christmas Eve, I ended the series by looking at Mary who “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Mary exhibits the posture of Christian waiting. After nine months of waiting for the birth of her child, she now will spend years waiting to see how “all these things” will pan out – the words of Gabriel, the song of Zechariah, the song of the angels, that her son has been called “Son of God,” “Son of the Most High,” and “God with us.”

Treasuring the hints of God’s presence, the promises of God, the wonders that God does, and pondering them in your heart is a description of a kind of prayer. And this kind of prayer is the posture of our waiting. Now this is not the prayer that we are accustomed too. We usually think of prayer as asking God for things. But if you look at the actual examples of prayer in the scriptures, and not just in the psalms, you will notice that the content of most prayer is a retelling of the wondrous acts of God, or recalling the characteristics of God, that God is just and loving and kind and ever faithful. The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving which we say before communion is like this too. Let me suggest that most of the prayers of scripture and the psalms are carefully crafted works of poetry that were written after the authors spent time in meditative prayer, treasuring “these things” up and pondering them in their hearts.

Many of you know that I have spent the last four years attending quarterly retreats on the spiritual disciplines with other pastors and church leaders. The elders have therefore suggested that I do a sermon series on prayer. The problem with doing a sermon series on prayer, however, is that there are very few texts in the scriptures that reveal what the practice of prayer is actually all about. We get hints that the psalmists mediated on God’s law, which is really the Torah, or the first five books of the Bible. They are meditating not just on the various laws we find in the Bible, but the whole story of God’s pursuit of fallen humanity through Israel. In the New Testament we get hints that Jesus and the apostles, particularly Paul, spent time in solitude, presumably also in silence meditating on God’s word. But we never get instruction on how to go about the practice of prayer. Jesus gives us the Lord’s prayer, but he never tells his disciples what he does when he goes off by himself for a whole night for prayer. How then, does one preach on prayer?

I think what we have to do is to work backwards from the prayer, which we have this morning as Psalm 72, to what it was that the psalmist was meditating on. What, in other words, does the psalm reveal about the nature of God? What traits of God would lead to the petitions the psalmist voices? What mighty acts inspired the poetry? What things did the psalmist treasure up and ponder in his heart?

And so let us take a look at Psalm 72 A careful examination of Psalm 72 reveals that the psalmist weaves 3 themes in and out of 3 different sections.

In the first section, verses 1-7, the psalmist weaves together the first two themes: that the King would rule with justice and righteousness, and that the earth would flourish. Now we often think of righteousness as merely doing what is right and lawful. A righteous person is someone who obeys the law and hasn’t done anything wrong. We also think of justice as people just getting what you deserve. Justice happens when those who behave well, the righteous, get rewarded for their good behavior and when those who behave badly, the unrighteous, get punished. But that is not how the psalmist views justice and righteousness.

If we assume that the psalmist has been pondering the works of the Lord, if he has been meditating on the Torah, then he prays that the king be endowed with justice and righteousness so that he that the king will reflect the justice and righteousness of God.  The King is God’s ambassador, his steward over his people, Israel. The psalmist prays that the king would be an extension of God’s righteousness and justice.  He therefore prays in verse 2 that those who are afflicted will receive justice, because God protects the downtrodden. He prays in verse 4 that the king will “defend the afflicted,” “save the children of the needy,” and “crush the oppressor,” just as God does. Justice is not as much about giving people what they deserve, but about protecting the vulnerable, lifting up the weak, and frustrating the plans of those who oppress the poor. Justice is about leveling the playing field so that all people can live well and enjoy God’s creation.

Righteousness, then, also has a different meaning. The poor and vulnerable are not saved by God because they are righteous. They haven’t necessarily been good, even though their oppressors have been evil. Rather, God demonstrates his righteousness, his goodness, his loving kindness, by being faithful to his people. He judges his people in righteousness by exerting his justice and saving them from oppression. Righteousness is about doing what is right, but it is not just following the letter of the law, rather it is about being true to a relationship. God is righteous by being true to his people. His people are righteous by being true to God and to God’s people. For us to be righteous means living into the biblical story which is the story of God’s relationship with his people. Particular laws may guide us, but the point is that we, and particularly the King, treat others with compassion, kindness, justice, mercy, and love. To be righteous is to treat others as those who are loved by God for God’s righteousness comes to expression through his love for his people.

So the psalmist prays that the king be endowed with the righteousness and justice of God because he knows that this will result in the flourishing of the land, the second theme. The psalmist, you see, has been meditating on God the Creator. He has been thinking of how God created the world so that all life – human, animal, and vegetable – could flourish. God’s reign over the creation, his just and righteous reign, aims to enable life and life in abundance. Remember the creation story in which God blesses not only humans, but the animals that they might multiply and fill the earth. The psalmist therefore prays that as God endows the King with justice and righteousness, God’s reign would be extended through the King, and Israel and even the land would exhibit the blessings of God. “May the mountains bring prosperity to the people, the hills the fruit of righteousness” (3).

In the second section, verses 8 -14, the psalmist weaves the first theme, the just reign of the King, with the third theme, that the king would rule over the nations. The psalmist envisions a day when the kings of the world, “from the River Euphrates to the ends of the earth” would come and bow down before the king of Israel. The psalmist has been meditating on the vocation of Israel. God called Abraham to be the father of God’s people and he blessed him so that through Israel all the nations of the world would be blessed. God is a just and righteous God who loves his people Israel because he intends to do for all the nations what he has done for Israel.

In verse 12 the psalmist answers the question why the kings should come to bow before the king of Israel: “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help.” The psalmist envisions the nations coming to pay homage to the King of Israel because the King of Israel is an embodiment and thus and extension of God’s justice and righteousness. In other words the blessing of God’s justice and righteousness will come to the nations through the reign of the King of Israel.

This then lead to the obvious conclusion in the third section, verse 15-17 in which the psalmist weaves together the second and third themes: As the nations live under the reign of the king they, and thus the whole earth, will be blessed with flourishing. In verse 18 he prays: “May grain abound throughout the land; on the tops of the hills may it sway.” With the result in verse 17: “Then all nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed.”

So what does this all teach us about prayer? Psalm 72 demonstrates that the petitions of the psalmist grow out of his reflection and meditation on the nature of God and of God’s purposes. When you pray, therefore, don’t begin with petitions. Begin by taking time to reflect on God. Read a passage of scripture and ponder it. What does it reveal about God? Praise God for who he is revealed to be in the passage, and then shape your petitions accordingly.

The collect is a form of liturgical prayer that can help us in this. My prayers of invocation are usually collects taken from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. A collect begins by naming some aspect of God’s nature and/or some gracious act of God. This morning I prayed: “Eternal God, by a star you led magi to the worship of your Son.” This invites reflection on who God is and what his purposes are which then leads to a fitting petition: “Guide the nations of the earth by your light.”  The petition then flows into the hoped for result: “That the whole world may see your glory.” The prayer then ends with a doxology, a word of praise: “Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.” The form then is: Praise of God’s nature and works, petition, hoped for result, and praise of God.

After reflecting on Psalm 72, let us pray:

Almighty God, who rules the earth with justice and righteousness,

turn the hearts of the rulers of the nations to the one true King, Jesus,

that his justice and righteousness may be extended to the poor,

that the land may overflow with grain and the deserts may blossom,

and that all the peoples of the nations may know the blessings of your hand.

“Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel,

who alone does marvelous deeds.

Praise be to his glorious name forever;

may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen” (Psalm 72:18-19)

 

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December 24, 2018 Pondering Treasures: A Christmas Eve Message
(Luke 2:19) There is no audio for this sermon.

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Mary has been through quite a lot. She has been visited by an angel and told that she would become pregnant even before her marriage to Joseph. Her fear of what to tell Joseph dissipated as she listened to his story about the angel that he dreamt of. The marvels continued with her visit to Elizabeth - pregnant, can you believe it, at her age? Zechariah’s months of silent brooding. The long trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem only to find the one place left to stay was with the animals. And there, next to the sheep, goats and a cow, she gave birth.

She and Joseph marveled together over what to call him. Gabriel had told Mary that her child would inherit the throne of David, that he would be King and that his kingdom would never end. What a task to name a king! Of course they would obey the angel who visited Joseph and name the baby Jesus, “God saves,” for the angel said that he will save his people from their sins.

And now a bunch of shepherds are crowding into the small room, all wanting a look at this newborn child. They are speaking in awed voices of angels and singing and the good news that this child will be the Savior and Messiah of God’s people. All of Joseph’s family are now gathering round wanting to hear the shepherds’ tale for what seems like the 10th time. And all who hear it are amazed. “But Mary treasures up all these things and ponders them in her heart.”

We have been examining the spiritual discipline of waiting during this season of Advent. Simone Weil once said ““Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” But who likes to wait?  Waiting, probably, has as much appeal in our culture as does another key to Christian spiritual growth – silence. We get nervous when things go silent. We get irritated when we have to wait. Perhaps we fear them both because we fear what we might begin to think about if we are left alone in silence with our thoughts. Perhaps we will have to actually reflect on who we are, the things we have done, the things we have said, the things we haven’t said or done.

As we wait, one of the ways we go in our thoughts is towards the past. We start to dig up past regrets, angers, hurts, and pains. Perhaps Mary is tempted to think of all the people who have been gossiping about her in Nazareth. We begin to chew on what others have done to us. We begin to play that game of “I should have … I could have … I would have.” We can allow our thoughts to swirl around in an unforgiving past.

Another way to go in our thoughts is to the future. “What is going to happen now?” Mary might have thought. This baby is going to become king. How will that happen? And who will that upset? She herself knows the significance of what the angel told her, that God was raising up the lowly in bringing down the proud rulers from their thrones. She is no fool. She knows that the proud and mighty do not fall without a fight. Of course her fears will soon be confirmed when she and Joseph take Jesus to be circumcised a week later. An old man in the temple will take the baby and say to Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel … And a sword will pierce your soul too” (Luke 2:34-35). Following our thoughts into the future can lead us into the dark alleyways of “How?” “When?” and “What if…?”

So as we wait, we can wrestle with our pasts or we can fret about the future, or we can follow Mary’s lead. There is a third way to go. We can treasure things up and ponder them in our hearts. We can recall with wonder how God has worked in our lives and in the lives of those around us. We can remind ourselves of all the promises God has made and rest in the future God is creating. This evening let us listen to the story of the gospel and treasure up all the things that Mary does. Let us ponder them in our hearts during the times of silence for it is in this treasuring up, in this pondering that God begins to work in our hearts. It is in silence and contemplation as we wait for God that God uses this time as a fallow time, a time when not much happens on the surface, but things begin to change beneath the soil of our daily lives. Through silence and contemplation, treasuring and pondering, let us allow God to work in the depths of our hearts, preparing them to receive our King.

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December 23, 2018 All Ye Faithful
(Luke 1:39-45) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] When I was young, about your age, my brother and I used to celebrate our birthdays together. Dan is two years older than me, but his birthday is just a week after mine. Now I liked a lot of things about celebrating my birthday. My mom always made chocolate cake with chocolate mint frosting. My parents would buy us a present or two, and for dinner Mom would make our favorite meal. But what really made our birthday celebrations a celebration was that we celebrated together. Dan and I would invite our best friends, Tom and Phil, who were also brothers, to join us. So Dan and I would celebrate our birthdays with our parents and our two friends and each other. That’s what made our birthday celebrations so special.

Tomorrow night and then all day on Tuesday we are going to celebrate a special birthday. We are going to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. I bet you will get to open presents and you will have a special meal. Maybe someone in your house has made special cookies or sweets. But I think the best part about celebrating Christmas is that we do it together, with friends, and with family. On Christmas Eve we will gather together as a church for a special worship service. We will listen to the story of Jesus’ birth and we will sing some of our favorite Christmas carols. Celebrating Christmas together sure makes it special, but what makes Christmas truly special is what we are celebrating. At Christmas we celebrate that God came to be together with us for in Jesus God was born as a little baby boy. And that is something special. That is something to celebrate.
[End children’s sermon]
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This morning I would like to tell you about a certain club. This club is in one sense very inclusive and in another sense very exclusive. It is inclusive because its members include people from all over the world, from every nation and language and ethnicity. Class is not a barrier to this club. Some of its members are among the wealthiest people in the world and some are among the poorest members in the world. There is an age limit to this club, but even that is somewhat variable. There are no entry fees or applications to fill out. There are no qualifications that need to be met such as education, or work experience, or technical knowledge, or skills. It is a very inclusive club. But on the other hand this club is very exclusive. About half of the population is automatically excluded from membership and no law could ever change that.

The club I am speaking of is that of women who have had or are about to have a baby. The experience of being pregnant and giving birth binds women together in ways that no other experience does. Get a bunch of women together and if one of them is pregnant, the conversation will often turn to their shared experience – the inexperienced seeking comfort, wisdom and just plain solidarity with those who have gone before her. Various stories of easy and difficult pregnancies will be followed by assurances that not everyone’s pregnancy is the same. Advice will be passed on about dealing with morning sickness, an aching back, and what baby paraphernalia you need and what you can do without. I can never be a member of this club, obviously, but I hear tell that pregnancy and giving birth is a wonderful, terrifying, joyous, depressing, awesome, soul changing, beautiful, incredibly painful experience. I can only imagine what it must be like. I can’t imagine, however, how difficult it would be to go through it alone. The club is as natural as birth itself. Women form this club because they need the community as they await the birth of their child.

After the angel Gabriel delivers his astonishing message to Mary, she gathers up her stuff and heads off to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Gabriel had said that even Elizabeth, old, barren and childless Elizabeth, would have a child. When Mary arrives, Elizabeth greets her saying, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” How does Elizabeth know! Mary must be thinking, followed by, “Am I already pregnant?”

On one level Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is one of the most ordinary gatherings. Mary, a young, pregnant, or about to be pregnant woman seeks out the companionship of an older woman and relative whom she can trust.  For her part, Mary provides companionship to an elderly woman who must have many fears of her own. On one level this visit is as ordinary as what women have been doing since the beginning – seeking each other’s support as they wait for the birth of their child.

On another level, both women know that neither their pregnancies nor their children are in any sense of the world ordinary. Their communion is also not just the ordinary communion of two pregnant women. It is the communion of two servants of God with their God. Luke writes, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). Henri Nouwen sees in this visit of Mary with Elizabeth a model of Christian community. He writes, “The visit of Elizabeth and Mary is one of the Bible’s most beautiful expressions of what it means to form community, to be together, gathered around a promise, affirming that something has really happened.”[1] Mary and Elizabeth, like Christians throughout the ages, gather in community around their experience of God being with them.

Women who go through pregnancy need the community of other women. Likewise, Christians who await the coming of our Lord and the birthing of the new age need the community of fellow Christians. We need one another for comfort and courage in this age as we wait for the age to come. We need one another for affirmation that our experience of God has been and is a true experience of God. And we need one another in order to fully celebrate what God is doing and what God has promised to do. If, as Simon Weil contends, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life,” then true Christian spirituality is a waiting done in community.

Both Mary and Elizabeth are in precarious situations. Elizabeth is well past the normal age of bearing children. Roxann and I were somewhat worried when Roxann became pregnant with Elise at age 32. Well, maybe not worried, but we thought if we wanted a second child, the sooner the better. Luke doesn’t tell us how old Elizabeth is, but she is probably well beyond 32. Luke says she is in her old age and that everyone assumed she was barren. Her husband, Zechariah, must also be elderly as he has a high rank in the priesthood. Roxann and I had the benefit of the newly acquired health insurance we received from Hessel Park Church and all the advantages of modern medicine. Elizabeth, on the other hand, had to rely on the wisdom, experience, and skill of the local midwife – which was likely very sufficient in normal circumstances. Still, while Elizabeth had never had a child before, you can be sure she knew her pregnancy was risky to say the least.

And Mary? She too is in a precarious position. Luke doesn’t give a detailed timeline, but Mary arrives in Elizabeth’s 6th month and leaves after 3 months, probably after John is born. The next story is the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem. The reader is left to assume that it is during Mary’s visit to Elizabeth that Mary becomes pregnant. She has secluded herself with her elderly cousin. A respectable woman. The wife of a priest no less. She knows that tongues are going to wag if what Gabriel has told her comes to pass. Who is going to believe her?  It looks to me that Mary comes not only to be with Elizabeth during her pregnancy, but to hide out in a safe and secure place. Mary and Elizabeth find protection, encouragement and comfort in their communion.

We also need one another for comfort and encouragement. Mary may wonder who is going to believe her. I am reminded almost daily by some of my agnostic friends on Facebook, by television shows and news articles that my belief in God, that our belief in God, is incomprehensible to many people. They think we live in a fantasy world in which we have made up a god in order to please ourselves. And if we are consistent in our beliefs with the biblical witness, we will find ourselves in contention with the surrounding culture in many ways. Mary reminds us this morning that the gospel includes God bringing down the proud and rich and mighty, and raising up the poor and the hungry. The gospel challenges the consumerism, the individualism, the nationalism, and the materialism, so rampant in our culture. The gospel is at odds with the pursuit of what our culture calls success. We need the community of the church in order to encourage each other to remain faithful, to resist the temptation to live just like everyone else. We need one another for comfort and encouragement.

One of the main ways we provide comfort and encouragement to one another is to affirm each other’s experience of God. Luke tells us, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby inside her leaped in her womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit.” She calls Mary and her baby blessed and says that Mary’s baby is her Lord. She thus confirms everything the angel Gabriel has said to Mary. Mary didn’t just imagine the angel. She is not delusional. She was visited by a messenger from God. Likewise, Mary’s visit affirms Zechariah’s story. Elizabeth’s baby is not only extraordinary because she has become pregnant at such an old age, he is the child of prophecy and a child born to be a prophet. Mary’s visit and her story of Gabriel confirm it. As Mary and Elizabeth share their experiences of God, they confirm each other’s experiences. God is truly working in and through them.

We also need one another to share and confirm our experience of God. Have you ever been particularly moved in a worship service in which you felt what you believed was the presence of the Holy Spirit? I have and if you have I will confirm that you have experienced the presence of God. Have you ever been overcome by a feeling of warmth and love as you have prayed and so felt assured that this was in fact God’s love that was embracing you? I know many people who have had that experience and they will tell you that you have experienced God’s loving presence. Have you ever felt prompted to do or say something to someone, a feeling which you suspect came from God? Was it for you to do something kind, or generous, or loving? Was it in line with the biblical witness of who God is? Then it may have just been God prompting you to do or say something.

As Christians we need each other to affirm each other’s experience of God. As Christians we do believe that God is present with us, that Christ dwells in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. God does make his presence palpable at times. If there is a God, it is not unreasonable to believe that he makes himself known and felt to people. But we also must provide a check on such experiences. God wouldn’t prompt us to do something that contracted his love and compassion and mercy. We must always test the spirits to see that our experience conforms to the experience of other Christians and to the teaching of the scriptures. In so doing we affirm one another that our faith in God is not mere fantasy. Our faith conforms to experience, to scripture and even to reason. Our faith in God and our experience of God is thus confirmed in and through the community of God’s people. God is indeed with us and he is working through us.

We are called to wait together for the coming of God’s Kingdom and Jesus’ second advent. We wait not alone but together so that we may comfort and encourage one another, so that we can affirm our faith and our experiences of God with us, and finally so that we can truly celebrate what God has done and what he promises to do. When Mary arrives to visit Elizabeth, Elizabeth responds with joy and celebration, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” Mary responds in kind, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

One can be happy, joyful, content, and filled with good cheer, but it is a bit difficult to celebrate alone. It can be done, but when people celebrate together, joy and happiness are not just added together, they are multiplied. Mary’s song praising God for lifting up the humble and bringing down the proud not only increased Elizabeth’s joy and celebration,  it has echoed through the hearts and souls of Christians for two thousand years. You can hum a song to yourself. You can sing along to your Christmas playlist, but here you can sing in harmony with your brothers and sisters in Christ. And if you are not the best singer, if you can’t carry a tune, then the congregation will carry you and lift up your praises with you. Here we gather around a common story. Here we are reminded of the gracious acts that God has done and we are told of what is yet to come. Here we come to celebrate together. O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem! Come, and behold Him, born the King of angels! O come, let us adore Him, Christ, the Lord!



[1] Henri Nouwen, “A Spirituality of Waiting: Being Alert to God’s Presence in Our Lives,” in The Weavings Reader: Living with God in the World (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1993), 69.

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December 16, 2018 Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room
(Luke 3:2-18) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Have you ever noticed what your parents do before they have guests coming over? What do they do to get ready? If they are having people over for dinner, they make the food, of course. Maybe they make coffee or tea, or have things ready to make coffee or tea. They pick up all the clutter in the kitchen and in the family room. Maybe they quickly dust some of the furniture and vacuum the floors. When we have guests over we want our house to look nice and we want to offer them something to eat or drink, so we have to get ready for them to come.

Last week we talked about how we call the four weeks before Christmas the season of Advent because Advent means “coming. We are waiting to celebrate when Jesus came to us the first time as a baby. We are also waiting for Jesus to come again and make all things new and good. Advent is a time of waiting, but it is also a time of preparing. We are getting ready for Jesus to come. We do all kinds of things to get ready to celebrate Christmas, right? We put up decorations. We have special church services. We make Christmas cookies. We buy presents. But what can we do to get ready for Jesus to come back again?

Before Jesus came the first time, John told people to help those who had less than them. He told others not to steal from people, and others to be honest. So we can do is what Jesus told us: love others as we love ourselves. We can treat other people as we would like to be treated. But John also told the people that Jesus would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. And since Jesus has already come that means that he has given us the Holy Spirit. So that means that in one way we are waiting for Jesus to return, but in another way Jesus is already here in our hearts though the Holy Spirit. So perhaps the best way to get ready for Jesus to come is to spend time with Jesus in worship, in reading the Bible, and in prayer because he is already here.
[End of children’s sermon]
* * * * * * * * * *

“Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?” In the second or sometimes third week of Advent, the common lectionary seems to interrupt our calm and tranquil and warm and fuzzy Advent season with John the Baptist. We have already started getting into the Christmas spirit. We had our Lessons and Carols service last week. We have all put up our Christmas trees at home and made Christmas cookies. We have been listening to our favorite Christmas playlist on Spotify or iTunes.

We are already celebrating the good news that Jesus was born to a virgin in Bethlehem, but then John the Baptism comes up in the lectionary readings to serve us some bad news and to make us a little uncomfortable. On Jordan’s bank the Baptist cries, “The ax is already at the root of the trees and every tree that does not produce fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” He urges us to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” He not only announces that the Lord is nigh, but he warns us, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. 

During this season of Advent, John the Baptist seems to be the bad news that we are told before the good news of Jesus. But Luke sums up John’s ministry in this way: “And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.”  Luke therefore starts this scene about John the Baptist with a quote from Isaiah. “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” John’s message is likened to the good news proclaimed in Isaiah 40 to the exiles in Babylon. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

The good news of Isaiah and the good news of John is that our exile is over, are sins are forgiven. For Israel this meant that that God was coming to bring them their salvation. He was going to bring them home from Babylon and bring them back to Jerusalem. What then does John’s good news mean for his audience? What then does John’s good news mean for us today? If we pull back from this scene and look at the surrounding context, we can get a better view of how Luke defines the good news that John is preaching, and we can also review some of the themes we have been looking at these past few weeks.

One of the most notable things about Luke is how he sets his gospel, his story of the good news of Jesus, squarely in the context of worldly politics. He sets the stage in 1:5 saying, “In the time of King Herod.” He sets the stage for Jesus’ birth saying, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree …” After 30 years have passed, give or take a few, he sets the stage again for John the Baptist in 3:1: “In the thirteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar …” The good news of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of David, that is, the King of the Jews, is set over against Caesar, the Emperor of Rome, and over against Herod, the puppet king of Judah. In the words of Zechariah, the good news is that God is coming “to rescue us from our enemies.”  In the words of Mary, “He has helped his servant Israel remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants” (1:54-55). And in the words of Simeon the good news is that in Jesus God’s salvation has come not only to his people, but as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”

The good news in Luke is thus the same good news as in Mark which we read about the other week – the Kingdom of God is coming, God’s reign has come near. This is what the people of Israel were waiting for. In Jesus the Kingdom of God broke through and began to take root.  We are waiting for the fullness of God’s kingdom to come. We are waiting for the reality of God which exists beyond us, behind us, above us, and ahead of us to overwhelm and remake this world, joining earth to heaven once again.

We have seen that one of our main tasks in this in between time, in this time in which the Kingdom has been planted, in which the Kingdom breaks in to this world now and again, one of our main tasks is simply to wait in expectant hope. In doing so we become witnesses of the reign of Christ. Like Zechariah and Mary and Simeon and the shepherds on Christmas morning, we point people to the Kingdom through our trust in the God who is and who was and who is to come. So John’s preaching, the good news John proclaims, invites us to sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King!”

That is the first invitation we receive from John’s preaching: Hear the good news, God’s Kingdom is coming. The second invitation we hear from John’s preaching is the invitation to repent. “All right,” you say, “So we got the good news first, and now we get the bad news. Now we must look at ourselves and fess up to what horrible and sinful people we are. Now we must root out all our selfishness and our greed and our lust.” Well, maybe that is so. Is your life filled with selfishness and greed and lust? Maybe that is where John’s call to repentance must lead you, but is that what John actually says here? The crowds around him ask, “What should we do?” John says, “share with those in need.” To the tax collectors he says, “don’t cheat people,” and to the soldiers he say, “Don’t extort people or accuse them falsely.”

John’s baptism is a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. The good news is that our sins are already forgiven. To repent is to turn from our sin and to turn toward God. It means to turn from living in the kingdoms of this world and to begin living in the Kingdom of God. To repent is to live into the new reality of that Jesus is Lord and not Caesar. It is to be ruled by love and righteousness rather than by the Dow Jones Industrial average. Notice that the sins John focuses on are social sins. To live in the Kingdom of God is, as the prophet Micah puts it, To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:5). To repent is to live under the reign of Christ whose kingdom is not of this world. His kingdom is an “otherworldly” kingdom, but it is a kingdom that is meant for this world. It is a kingdom that is coming.

And so John taps in to another theme in the Gospel of Luke. John calls those with power – the tax collectors and soldiers, not to take advantage of the weak, and he calls each of us to be generous to the poor. This echoes Mary’s song in which she sings that God “has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but he has sent the rich away empty” (1:52-53). It echoes Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth when he reads from the book of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” He then says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus himself characterizes his ministry as a ministry of social justice. Moreover Jesus goes on to say that just as in Elijah and Elisha’s time, God’s mercy is particularly shown not to the Israelites, but to a pagan widow in Zarephath and even to Israel’s arch enemy, a leprous Syrian General named Naaman. God in Jesus is particularly merciful to pagans, aliens, foreigners, widows and the unclean.

The good news that the Kingdom is coming thus calls us and frees us from living under the unjust structures of this world. To repent is to live under the just and righteous and merciful reign of Christ. It is to sing “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and the wonders of his love.” The good news is that under the reign of Christ we are freed to love our neighbors as ourselves, to live for the common good, and to contribute to the flourishing of all. Is it not good news to be freed from our own selfishness? Is it not good news to be freed from our pride and greed so that we can live in justice and in peaceful harmony with others?  Is John’s call to repent really such bad news?

Well, I don’t know if I would call it bad news, but it is tough news. It isn’t easy personally. It isn’t easy to give up our pride and greed and selfishness. It is also tough news because those in power don’t like the news that Jesus is the true king. The tough news is that the rich don’t like being sent away empty and seeing their wealth being given to the poor. The proud don’t like being taken down from their lofty seats or the humble being lifted up. Luke concludes this scene about John in verse 19, “But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.” And after Jesus preached his first sermon in his home town of Nazareth, the people took him to the brink of a cliff in order to cast him down. People don’t like being told that God is particularly merciful not to them but to the widows, the orphans, and the immigrants and refugees. People don’t like hearing that Jesus came not for the righteous but for sinners. To repent and live into the reign of Christ means taking up a cross like Jesus and following him.

But John is not finished yet. He extends a third invitation. In verse 16 he says, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” In Jesus we are invited to a life in which we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. A life in which the Holy Spirit of God lives in us. We are invited to an intimate communion with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

John thus taps into a third theme in the Gospel of Luke and Luke’s companion gospel, the book of Acts. God’s people in Luke and Acts are those who are indwelt and led by the Holy Spirit. In Luke, Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth, and Simeon are all filled with the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts individuals like Peter, Phillip, Paul and Barnabas are led by the Holy Spirit. But the church as a whole is empowered at Pentecost and several other times by outbreaks of the Holy Spirit all so that its witness bears fruit and it grows from a handful of scared disciples in Jerusalem to all Judea and Samaria, and then all the way to Rome and throughout the Roman Empire.

Perhaps most importantly, throughout Luke it is clear that Jesus himself is enabled to carry out his ministry and to endure the passion of the cross by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is anointed with the Sprit at his baptism and he confirms this through the words of Isaiah in his sermon in Nazareth. It is therefore the Spirit through whom Jesus maintains his intimate relationship with God the Father. It is the Spirit that leads and guides Jesus in obedience and in faith so that he can pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will, but yours be done” (22:42). It is the Spirit that enables Jesus to say on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34).

And so it is also with the Apostle Paul. From prison in Rome, after a life of dedicated service to the gospel in which he has been beaten, stoned, shipwrecked and imprisoned multiple times, he writes to his beloved church in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:4-7). He can say all of this because he knows that it is Christ who is in him through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Paul can thus say a few verses later, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (12-13).

Friends in Christ, John invites us to believe with joy the good news that God’s kingdom is coming. He invites us to repent and to begin living into the reign of Christ. And he invites us to live out of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He invites us to have our lives led and guided by the Spirit, and to have our souls indwelt by the Spirit. He invites us to live in an ever more intimate relationship with God through whom we will receive a peace that transcends all understanding and lead to a life in which we can be content and faithful in every situation. And so this baptism is also a baptism of fire, for as you grow more intimate with God, Christ will burn up all the chaff in your life. He will burn up your pride. He will burn up your selfish desires. He will burn up your greed, your jealousies, your angers, your old hurts and resentments. But you will come to warm yourself around this fire for you will recognize that all this chaff in your life has been the chains that have oppressed your soul and kept you from being who you are truly meant to be. Friends, let us receives John’s invitations and sing the words of Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.” The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you. Amen.

(Silent prayer)

 

Almighty God, you send your Son into a world

            where the wheat must be winnowed from chaff

            and wickedness clings even to what is good.

Let the fire of your Spirit purge us of greed and deceit,

            so that, purified, we may find our peace in you

            and you may delight in us.

We ask this through him whose coming is certain,

            whose day draws near,

            your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

            one God, forever and ever. Amen.

 

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December 9, 2018 A Season of Waiting
(A Service of Lessons and Carols) There is no audio for this sermon.

When I was young the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas were weeks of waiting. Our family would haul out the Christmas decorations. We would put up our Christmas tree and hang all the ornaments on it. My mom would spread a bright red tablecloth over the dining room table and put a center piece on it with evergreen branches and pine cones and candles. We hung a wreath on the front door and then my mom might make some Christmas cookies.

When all the decorating was done, I thought there was still something missing. What do you think that might be? ... The Christmas tree was full of lights and ornaments, but I still thought it looked kind of empty. There were no presents under the tree. And so I would wait. And my brothers would wait. We would check every morning to see if there were any presents under the tree, but day after day we just had to wait. And we waited and waited, and then one day, maybe a week or so before Christmas, all of a sudden there would be presents under the tree.

Now during that time of waiting, it seemed like nothing was happening. Nothing changed. The tree looked the same every morning. There was a huge empty space underneath the tree every day. It didn’t seem like anything was happening. But as I got older, I realized that something was happening. I realized that on some nights my parents would go out to the stores. On the weekends they might make a trip to the mall. I realized that while I was waiting. My parents were planning. They were figuring out what to get each of us. They were shopping for our presents. After they bought them they would hide our presents so we couldn’t find them. One night after we went to bed, when they had bought all our presents, they would wrap them all up in bright wrapping paper and put them under the tree. So while my brothers and I waited and waited and it seemed like nothing was happening, my parents were very busy getting ready for our Christmas celebration.

This season before Christmas is called Advent. Do you know what Advent means? It means “coming.” It is the season in which we wait for the coming of Jesus. We wait to celebrate his first coming when he was born in Bethlehem. And we wait for the day when he will come again and make all things new and good. This morning we are celebrating Advent and Christmas with our special Lessons and Carols service. So we sing Christmas Carols, but we also read “Lessons.” The Lessons are bible stories that have to do with the birth of Jesus. Actually many of them tell of how God’s people waited and waited for the birth of Jesus. We will read of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, and also of John the Baptist. We will read of how God promised that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem and that he would bring peace to God’s people. We will read of Mary and Joseph, of the shepherds, the angels, and the wise men from the east.

All of these people were waiting in one way or another for Jesus. And sometimes they waited for years and years. The people of Israel waited hundreds and hundreds of years for God to send a savior. We will read of an old man named Simeon who waited for years and years in the temple for God to send Israel a savior. So sometimes during all this waiting, it seemed like not much was happening. God’s people probably wondered if God would ever do anything to save them. But they kept on waiting.

But even when we don’t see anything happening, God is often working quietly and slowly. During all these years that Israel waited, God’s people collected all the writings of the prophets and all the books about Abraham and Moses and the children of Israel, and they collected all Psalms that were written by David and others, and they put them all into one book which we call the Bible. At that time it was just what we call the Old Testament. During those years God was working in his people because as they worshipped him and as they read the stories of the Bible, they learned to put their hope in him. You see, as God’s people waited, God was working. He was preparing them for the coming of Jesus.

What is more, God was preparing the world for the coming of Jesus. During all those years and years the people of God waited, many of them moved out of Jerusalem to a number of cities throughout the Roman Empire. Some of them moved to Rome, in what is now Italy, some to Athens in Greece, and some to Ephesus, which is now in Turkey. And in those cities the Jewish people told other people about God and about the Bible and they taught them how to worship God. Those are the cities that years later the Apostle Paul traveled to. Now when Paul visited each of these cities, the first thing he would do would be to visit the local synagogue where the Jewish people worshipped God. He would talk with the Jewish people who were there, and he would talk to the people the Jews told about God, and he would tell them all about Jesus. And some of them came to believe in Jesus and that is how the church started to grow and grow. That is how new churches were started in cities all over the Roman Empire. So you see, while it didn’t look like anything was happening, while the people waited for God to save them, God was working, getting his people and the world ready to hear about Jesus.

So as we listen to the stories of God’s people and how they waited for God to send a savior, how they waited for Jesus, maybe you can think about how we are waiting for Jesus to come back. Sometimes we look around the world and it doesn’t look like much is happening. We might wonder where God is and what he is doing. But because we know that God was working back then even when people didn’t notice it, we can trust that God is working now. We can trust that God is working so more and more people now about Jesus. He is preparing the world for Jesus’ return.

And when we have to wait in our own lives, as we wait for Jesus to come back, we can wait with patience. Sometimes we might pray to God and sometimes it seems like God doesn’t answer right away. We have to wait and wait for God’s response. This season of Advent teaches us that as we wait, we can trust that God is working. And so we can wait with patience, with faith, and with hope.

Dear Lord Jesus, we thank you that you left your heavenly throne to be born as a baby in Bethlehem, to bring your salvation to us and to the world. Give us faith that you are always working in this world so we may wait for your return with patience and hope. Amen.

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December 2, 2018 Keeping Watch
(Luke 21:25-36) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] The other morning I woke up and there was some snow on the ground. What does it tell you when you see snow on the ground for the first time of the year? It tells you that winter is coming, doesn’t it? And when you see the leaves on the trees begin to change colors, what does that tell you? It tells you that fall is coming.  So there are signs that we can see that fall and winter are coming. Is there a sign that spring is coming?  When you see the trees beginning to bud, or maybe daffodils poking up out of the ground, then you know that spring is almost here.

Jesus lived in the land of Israel and they only have two seasons in Israel, summer and winter. And so Jesus once said, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

Jesus said that there are signs that we can see that tell us that his Kingdom is near. What signs do you think that might be? Maybe when we see people treating each other with kindness; that might be a sing of God’s kingdom. Maybe when we see people helping those who are sick, just like Jesus healed the sick; that might be a sign of the kingdom. Maybe when see people helping those who are poor; that might be a sing of the kingdom. Jesus says that one of the signs of the kingdom is that people will look to him. So when we see people looking to Jesus and putting their faith in him, that is a sign that Jesus’ kingdom is near. And when people put their faith in Jesus, you now what they do? The treat others with kindness. They take care of people who are sick. They help people who are poor. So when you see those things, you know that Jesus’ Kingdom is near.
[End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

When people speak of the end times, they often bring up this passage and the images from this passage. Therefore we think the end times will be a time of chaos upon the earth. A time of wars and rumors of war. A time of great distress. A time of famines and earthquakes and pestilence. A time something like now. But, as I have noted before, Jesus says at the beginning of this sermon, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

As we heard a couple of weeks ago, Jesus has just thrown the disciples for a loop. They made some comments about the temple and Jesus tells them that the temple will be destroyed. In their world that means the end of their world. Jesus goes on to predict that not just the Temple but all Jerusalem with it will be destroyed. The main topic of this passage is therefore not the end times, but the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. In this passage Jesus instructs his followers how they should conduct themselves when their world seems to be falling apart.

Rather than instructing his disciples to look forward in time to the end times, Jesus actually brings up images that will encourage the disciples to look back in time. In verse 27 he says, “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” This is a reference to Daniel 7, which we read two weeks ago. Daniel sees “one like a son of man” arriving with the clouds, but not to earth, but to the throne of God. In the vision God seats the Son of Man on his throne and grants him dominion over “all peoples, nations and men of every language.” The image is not of Jesus’ return to earth, but of his ascension to heaven which took place in AD 33. So Jesus is saying when the Romans destroy Jerusalem in AD 70, many will look up and see Jesus ascending to his throne in AD 33. How can that be?

Last week we saw how God is he who is and who was and who is to come. God exists outside of time. And so when Jesus ascends to the heavenly realms, he too enters that eternal space. His ascension happens outside of our time and can therefor break in to this time at any time. Or rather, the veil between heaven and earth can be pulled back at any time and we here on earth can see this heavenly event that happens outside of time.

In a similar way, then, this passage is about the end times. While the main drama Jesus talks about is the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, he alludes in several places to the end. He speaks of “that day,” which hints at “the Day of the Lord.” And there are times when the action seems to not just be in Jerusalem, but worldwide, and even cosmic. Jesus thus brings in images of the “end times.” He can do this because the Day of the Lord is also an event that is outside of our time and breaks into our time on occasion. It is analogous to God’s eternity who is and who was and who is to come. The Ascension and the Day of the Lord can be now, in the past, and in days to come.

So here is the scene. Jesus’ disciples are distraught at the thought of the destruction of the Temple. Jesus therefore tells them that there are going to be times ahead when the world will seem to be coming to an end. There will be chaos throughout the world and they, as his disciples, can’t expect to be exempt from the chaos. In fact, there will be times when Jesus’ followers will be persecuted. They will be arrested and hauled before governors and kings.

What then are Jesus followers to do? “Stand firm,” Jesus tells them. Stand up and lift up your heads.” “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life.” “Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen.” In the midst of wars and rumors of wars, of pestilence and plaques, Jesus tells his disciples that it is their job to watch and pray. Wait, in other words, with attentiveness and hope. Watch for the signs of the Kingdom.

But what are the signs of the Kingdom? Are they not all the terrible things that are going to happen? Are they not the signs in “the sun, moon, and stars?” Are they not that “nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea?” See, the rising sea levels are a sign that the end is near? The forest fires in California, the wars in Yemen and Syria, are not these the signs?

Yes, and no. They are signs, but they are not the main sign. In verse 27 Jesus says, “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”  Jesus says “they” will see him being enthroned. “They” not “you.” The main sign of the kingdom is that when people in Jerusalem and then all over the world experience all these calamities, some of them will look and see Jesus. They will see him being given the throne to reign over the whole world. They will see him, that is, as Lord and King. This makes sense because another sign is that during these tumultuous times the disciples are going to be giving testimony about Jesus. The main sign of the coming Kingdom is people on earth claiming Jesus as King. When this happens Jesus’ ascension breaks in to our time. When this happens “the end” and the Kingdom break in to this world.

One of the traps we fall into as modern people is that we have come to accept progressivism as a reality. By progressivism I do not mean left-wing progressive American politics. I mean the modern idea that things in general -the world, politics, society, evolution - progress from lower states to higher states, from worse to better. We assume that the Kingdom of God follows the rules of progressivism and comes bit by bit into this world. But the Kingdom doesn’t come in progressively. Jesus says there are going to be wars and rumors of wars, persecutions and pestilence. Things are not necessarily going to get better. They may get better, but that may only last for a time. They may get worse, but that may only last for a time.

This passage, then, brings us a message of warning, but also a message of hope. First, the message of warning: when we fall into the trap of progressivism we get into all kinds of trouble. When we think the kingdom comes into the world step by step, bit by bit, we start to identify the Kingdom with particular political or social movements. For conservative Christians this meant that the election of Barak Obama was somehow a setback to the Kingdom of God. And many have now identified Trump’s administration with the advance of the Kingdom. As more and more conservative judges are appointed, and as the conservatives won the battle over the Supreme Court, the path of the Kingdom looks really good to them for years to come. For progressive Christians the opposite seems to be true. They decry Trump’s policies on the environment, immigration laws, international policies, well, on just about everything he has done or tried to do as a set back of the Kingdom of God. And they pray to God in despair.

This is a trap because then we start to believe that we as Christians must support this political party, or that social movement. We then start questioning the faith of other Christians who do not support our cause or our candidate. We can also be tempted to overlook the immoral tactics of our political party, or the lies our candidate tells, or the way our cause leads people to ignore other pressing problems in our world. At its worse, we begin to identify a particular nation with the cause of the Kingdom. To equate Trump’s “Make America Great” agenda with the Kingdom of God, for instance, borders on heresy. The Son of Man in Daniel is King over all the nations and he no longer works through any particular nation. Rather, it is the church, the global, international church who is given the mission to bear witness to Christ and his Kingdom.

And that brings us to my second point; this passage gives us direction for how we are to pursue God’s mission as the church. Our role in God’s mission when the world seems to be coming to an end is to wait patiently with expectation. As we said last week, the Kingdom of God is here in some ways but it is not fully here. But that does not mean we are on a progressive course in which we can see the slow but steady advancement of the kingdom. In fact, things may get a lot worse. It may appear at times that the Kingdom is regressing. But Jesus tells us “stand up and lift up your heads.” He encourages us to look to him and his past ascension, and to look to him and his coming Kingdom. He reigns. He is on the throne. Nothing that happens here and now can alter that. He has won the decisive battle over death and sin. Neither the gates of hell nor any political movement nor any terrorist organization will derail or set back or overcome the Kingdom nor will they ever fully overcome this world. God’s Kingdom is coming.

And so even when things appear to be at their worst, even when the world seems to be coming to an end, the Kingdom is not being set back. People can still look to Christ. We can still testify to the lordship of Christ and to his Kingdom. People will then look up and the veil between heaven and earth will be drawn back and they will see Christ on the throne and the Kingdom will break in upon us.

So instead of working frenetically as if God’s Kingdom depended on us, we can live in this world with calm assurance.  We can live with trust and confidence that God’s Kingdom depends on God and not on us. That frees us to continue working for the Kingdom rather than trying to build the Kingdom. We work for the Kingdom by loving our neighbors as ourselves, seeking justice for the oppressed, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and welcoming the stranger. We work for the Kingdom by testifying that Jesus is Lord and living as if that were so. And when people begin to put their faith in Christ, when people act out of their faith in Christ and love justice and seek mercy, then we will see sprouts of the Kingdom breaking through the soil and buds of the Kingdom popping out of branches. Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be. Amen.

Silence

Almighty God, in this Advent season as we anticipate the coming of your Son, our Lord and King, Jesus, keep our eyes ever upon him, seated on the throne so that we may wait with peace and confidence and joy and faithfulness and so that our very lives may be a budding sign of your coming Kingdom. We pray in the name of Jesus who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.

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November 25, 2018 Waiting for the True Kingdom
(John 18:33-37; Revelation 1:4-8) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do you go to school? I wonder what you like about school. I like a lot of things about going to school. I liked walking into the building which I thought was pretty old. I liked thinking about how for many years other kids just like me had been coming to my school and learning the same things I was learning. I liked seeing all my friends every day. But what I really liked about school was that there was something new every day. There was always something new to learn, some new math problem to solve, some new story to read, or some new person from history to learn about. I guess you could say I liked the past, present and future of school. I liked how old the school was, I liked seeing my friends every day, and I liked how there was something new to learn the next day.

In the book of Revelation God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come.”  Now Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega is the last so it is like saying, “I am the A and the Z.” God is the beginning and the end. All of time is in God - present, past and future, for he is the God is who is, who was, and who is to come. Because God has been in the past, we can trust that he will always be the same. We can always count on him. Because God is in the present, we can know that he is always with us, always watching over us, always carry for us. And because God is he who is to come, we can always look forward to the future. God will always be doing something new. He will always have something new for us to do. God is the A and the Z, the Alpha and the Omega, who is, who was, and who is to come. [End of Children’s Sermon].

* * * * * * * * * *

Evan, Elise and I like to make fun of Roxann once in a while because she always gets her sayings mixed up. Instead of saying, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” Roxann will say “I want my cake and ice cream too.” “Why?” she asks, “would you have a cake and not eat it? It makes no sense. And who has birthday cake without ice cream?”

Now when you see Valencia’s cakes and cupcakes, I think “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” makes perfect sense. She is such an artist that you hate to cut into the cake and destroy her masterpiece. And so the saying rings true: you can’t have the cake, you can’t keep the cake in order to admire it, and eat it as well.

When it comes to this world and the world to come, we Christians are faced with a similar dilemma. We claim to believe in the coming Kingdom of God. We believe that one day all the world will recognize God as the Creator and Christ as King. We believe that one day heaven and earth will be joined together and God will make his dwelling with humanity once again. We believe that one day the dead will be raised and we and the whole world will be changed. We are waiting for the new heavens and the new earth. That is what we are waiting for.

The problem is that we tend to act as though there is a dichotomy between this world and the next. Some Christians place so much emphasis on their hopes in the next world, that they discount this one. What matters is saving souls to get people into the next. We have no hope of fixing this world’s problems, so we shouldn’t be wasting our time worrying about social injustice or climate change. Other Christians, however, seem to be rather embarrassed by the Christian doctrine of the end times. There is too much about these beliefs that is supernatural and fantastic. When Christians speak of resurrection, or heaven, or life everlasting, we sound so naïve. We sound as if we reject science and still live in the 15th century. Better to just focus on protesting the injustice in the world,, changing our criminal justice system, and protecting the environment. Basically many Christians are saying, “You can’t have heaven and earth too.”

Now I know that most of us here will say that we don’t fit into either of those categories. We know that we live in the “already, but not yet” of the Kingdom. We know that Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. He testified to the initial presence of the Kingdom in this world through his preaching and in his ministry of healing. We believe that through his death and resurrection he won the decisive battle over the enemies of the Kingdom, sin and death. We all know that the Kingdom of God is in some sense here and now, for Jesus said to his disciples, “the Kingdom is among you” (Luke 17:21). But we also know that the Kingdom is not fully here. That is all too evident if you simply look around. We know that The Kingdom is here but not yet, and so we hope for the day when Christ returns to bring his Kingdom in its fullness.

But it is one thing to believe this, and another thing to live it out. It is so easy to become “practical atheists.” It is so easy to believe in one thing, to believe in the coming Kingdom of God, but then live our lives as everyone else around us does. There is a built in tension to the Christian life because we must live in this beautiful world that God created and loves, but yet we know how damaged and broken it is. We live in this world but we believe that this world is not the source or grounding for itself. There is something greater than this world, something transcendent, something beyond, Someone who is and who was and who is to come. And so we believe that this world is not ultimate, there is more yet to come. We live in this beautiful world, but we know it is passing away. At the heart of this tension is that it is so easy to point to this world, but difficult to point to that which is beyond and transcendent. We can only believe. We can’t offer proof of the truth we believe in, only testimony.  This tension lies at the heart of our story this morning.

What is truth?” With these words Pilate dismisses Jesus and turns down the path that eventually leads him to having Jesus crucified. The Jewish leaders have accused Jesus of a crime, but Pilate can’t figure out how to find their accusations credible. They have accused him of treason, of claiming to be a king. But Pilate looks at Jesus and asks incredulously, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  What a joke, he must be thinking.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t help to clear things up. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” “You are a king, then!” Pilate replies, but under his breath he mutters, “King of another place!? You can be king of Never-Never land for all I care.” Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” It is a rather pertinent question for today. With both sides of the political spectrum claiming “Fake news!” we may be tempted to throw our hands up in the air like Pilate and ask, “What is truth?” But in the absence of an answer, when we can’t determine what is “truth,” when “truth” seems relative or debatable, then we tend toward violence. “I find no basis for a charge against him,” Pilate tells the religious leaders, but at their insistence he releases a true revolutionary named Barabbas and has Jesus beaten and crucified.

The rub of it all for us is that the truth to which Jesus has come to testify, just like the kingdom over which he reigns, is not of this world. Jesus comes to bear witness to the fact that this reality, this world in which we live is not the arbiter of Truth. The foundation of what is True, the foundation of what is real, lies outside this world. Jesus’ Kingdom is what is most fundamentally real and true. In our passage from Revelation, God says “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come” (1:8). The basis of reality lies in God who is the beginning and the end, who exists outside of time and so exists outside the reality in which we live.

To say that truth lies outside this world means to recognize that this world is transitory. It is passing away. It is not ultimate. Seeing this we can accept that this world is a fallen world. We therefore don’t have to accept this world on its terms. Jesus said if he was from this world his followers would become an army. Many in this world would have us believe that violence lies at the root of this world, that force is the only way to get things done. But we know that this is a fallen world. Violence and hatred are not inherent to the world; they are intruders. We therefore don’t have to play by the rules of this fallen world. Rather, we believe that God, who is love, created this world and founded it on love and grace. The hope we have for the kingdom is that love and grace will finally overcome violence and hatred, fear and anger. It is this faith that enables Jesus to allow the world to convict him to death through a sham trial, beat him and mock him, and, finally, to nail him to a cross until he dies. He endures the cross because he knows that violence, fear and hatred will not have the last word. He knows that there is a more fundamental grounding of this world that will be fully present in the next. He knows what is most deeply true and so he can die to that which is not True.

Last week I quoted Simone Weil who said, ““Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”[1] The word we normally use to mean “waiting patiently in expectation” is hope. But hope has been stripped of its deep meaning. For most people to hope is simply to wish for something. Once again Henri Nouwen is helpful as he draws a distinction between wishing and true waiting.

Wishing is specific. We wish for certain things. We wish for a new bike for our birthday. We wish for a promotion. Wishing therefore leads to impatience and a demand to control the outcome. When we don’t get what we want we get anxious and annoyed. Wishing is derived out of a sense of lack and is often driven by selfish desire, or fear, or anger. And since it is focused on something specific and a demand for control, it locks us into a certain path which usually leads to violence if our wish is not fulfilled. You can see this in how Pilate traps himself into a course of action by his own wish.

Pilate wishes for a calm and peaceful Passover week. Tensions are high as the Jews celebrate their liberation from Egypt. He has already arrested one rebel named Barabbas and now the Jewish leaders are turning in one of their own and saying he is claiming to be King. The path before Pilate, the path to demonstrate that Rome’s grip over Judah remains strong and firm, yet not unreasonable, demands a delicate balancing act. Through this whole process Pilate has demonstrated his willingness to negotiate, at least a little. He finds his way ahead by acceding to the request of the Jewish leaders, having this Jesus crucified, and releasing Barabbas. He thus shows that he can be merciful, but more importantly, he has gained what he wants.- through this whole process the Jews have conceded Rome’s rightful rule over them. They have admitted that it is his place to condemn someone to death, and, his greatest victory of the day, the Jews are out in the courtyard yelling, “We have no King but Caesar.” The truth of Jesus’ innocence is a small price to pay for all of that.

In contrast to Pilate, Jesus waits. He does not wish for God to send a band of angels to save him. He does not wish for his disciples to raise up an army to storm the palace. He hopes and waits for what is more true than violence. He hopes and waits for resurrection.

In contrast to wishing, which is specific, Nouwen says that true waiting, hope, is open ended. Jesus has faith in the promises of God that he will be raised from the dead and that this act of dying on the cross and rising will bring in a new age. To wait open-endedly, according to Nouwen, is to “[give up] control over our future and [to let] God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to fear.”[2] To wait with open-ended hope, to wait in expectation, is to refuse to demand that our future turn out a certain way, but to trust that our future is in the hands of God. And thus, instead of being locked into a path that leads to anger and violence, our future opens us up to love, gentleness, kindness, and patience.

And that leads us to a second difference between wishing and waiting. Since wishing is specific, it leads to an end. But since waiting and hope are open ended, they lead to ever new beginnings. Jesus trusts in God, the God, according to the book of Revelation, “who is, and who was, and who is to come.” Jesus trusts in the God who is eternal, who has no beginning and so has no end. God’s actions are therefore ever becoming. Charles Matthews, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, argues that “the fundamental ontology [or the fundamental reality] of the world is describable as “being born again” – a form of existence oriented toward ever deeper beginning. We are saved from something, but what we are saved from is fundamentally a bad version of ourselves, our solitude, our isolation. And what we are given is life abundant – life that has properly, at last, begun.”

Friday afternoon I sat on our family room floor with several strands of Christmas lights strewn around me. As my parents looked on I began the tedious job of trying to figure out which bulb in a strand of 400 lights was causing half of them to fail. After several minutes of this my parents and I decided that the problem was not due to any single bulb, but due to a fault in the wires. It would be impossible to find and fix the problem. There was nothing to do but throw them away and buy three new strands of lights to hang on our front porch. But I know that in 3 or 4 years, I am going to be sitting on the family room floor with several stands of lights strewn around me trying to figure out why half of the lights on each strand don’t work.

We idolize newness and novelty in our culture. We love getting new clothes, a new car, a new computer, a new phone. But so much of the new stuff we buy is built to fail. Computers and phones are designed to become obsolete in 4 or 5 years. Companies make it more expensive to repair your dishwasher than to replace the whole thing. Newness is an idol because while we value what is new, we discard all that is old. And the new then quickly becomes old.

The newness we hope for in the Kingdom of God, however, is not such a false newness. It is a newness based on Truth, for what is new, what is becoming does not discard the old. Rather what is new comes out of the old and fulfills the old. The dichotomy be heaven and earth, between this age and the age to come is thereby erased.  What we hope for is resurrection in which our old, dead bodies will be raised to new life. What we hope for, what we wait expectantly for is the new heavens and the new earth that will be made from out of the present heavens and the present earth and will fulfill what this world was and is supposed to become. Let us therefore be on the side of Truth. Let us listen to Jesus. Let us wait in hope-filled, patient expectation for his Kingdom. And in this way let us testify to the Truth. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.



[1] Quoted in Henri Nouwen, “A Spirituality of Waiting: Being Alert to God’s Presence in Our Lives,” in The Weavings Reader: Living with God in the World (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1993), 70.

[2] ibid. 68.

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November 18, 2018 What are you waiting for?
(Mark 13:1-11) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] What do you like about the building here at Hessel Park Church? … Is there anything special about Hessel Park Church? Our church is a bit different than other churches. There are no pews. It is all white. We have our potluck lunches right where we worship. I like it when we have our snacks outside after the worship service. There are quite a few special things about Hessel Park Church.

Well I don’t know if you know this, but the temple in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day was one of the most beautiful and amazing buildings in all the world at that time. It was made of all white marble, so it really shone like a light on a hill. King Herod actually made the hill on which the temple was built twice as big by building huge walls of giants stones and then filling it all in.

But you know what was most special about the temple? The temple symbolized that God was present with his people. Inside the temple there was a holy place and in side that was a place called the Holy of Holy’s. And way back when King Solomon built the first temple, God’s glory came down and filled the Holy of Holies.

Now we believe that God is everywhere. But when we come to church we believe that God meets us here. When we worship God, we worship in his presence. That is the most special thing about Hessel Park Church, and about any church. But there is one more thing I think is pretty special about Hessel Park Church, and it is this big, huge window behind you. When God meets us here as we worship, anyone can look in and see us. This window reminds us that when we meet God here, he is not just for us, God is here for everyone in the world. [End of Children’s Sermon]

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Some friends and I were talking about all the construction happening on campus lately. It seems every time you pass by a place in campus town that you haven’t been to in a while, there is a new high rise of student apartments. One of my friends commented on how disorienting it is just to walk around campus town. Old restaurants and shops are gone. Familiar views have disappeared. You look up from walking and you have to take a minute to recognize where you are. The number and size of the new high rises in Champaign-Urbana over the past 7 years is rather stunning.

The disciples look up at the temple and they are amazed. Many of them are fishermen used to seeing the flat surface of the Sea of Galilee backed by the surrounding hills. Nowhere else have they seen such magnificent architecture. Nowhere else have they beheld such a massive structure.  “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

Of course the awe in the voice of the disciples is not just due to the truly incredible sight of temple. Their awe of the size and magnificence of the temple was matched by their beliefs about the temple. The temple represented God’s presence with his people. But this temple had been built by Herod the Great, and many Jewish people had ambivalent feelings about the priests who ran the temple. While Herod claimed to be a Jew, he was a puppet of the Roman Empire. Most people saw through his false piety and the false piety of his sons who reined in Jesus’ day. Likewise, the people knew that the High Priests were in the pocket of Herod and of Rome. Ironically, the main symbol of Jewish nationalism was also a symbol of Israel's subservience to Rome.

But because the temple represented God’s presence with his people, it also became a symbol of hope. The people longed for a Messiah not only to come and defeat their enemies, the Romans, but also to cleanse and purify the temple. They longed to worship God in freedom once again. The temple would then be not just a symbol of God’s presence, but the assurance of God’s actual presence with them,

Our buildings often embody our hopes as well. So what are you waiting for? The high rise apartments going up on campus embody the hopes of many student to live a life of urban success. Many Americans, and many of us, live in single family homes that are rather large when compared to homes in the rest of the world. We literally build the American dream and then live in it. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 targeted buildings that symbolize what Americans put their trust and hope in – the economy, the government, and the military.

When Jesus responds to the disciples he basically drives a battering ram through their hopes and dreams. “Do you see all these great buildings?” he says in verse 2, “Not one stone here will be left on another, every one will be thrown down.”  “Tell us,” the disciples ask desperately, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to be fulfilled?” At this point the hopeful waiting of the disciples has been turned into a fear of God’s judgment. They recognize a prophetic pronouncement of judgement when they hear it, and the prediction that the temple will be destroyed is definitely a prophetic pronouncement of judgment.

So what are we waiting for? Over the next few weeks through the season of Advent, we are going to be looking at the spirituality of waiting. Simone Weil, a French philosopher and mystic said, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”[1] But what are we waiting for? Many in Jesus’ day put their hopes in a coming judgment of the Romans and of the religious leaders who had been coopted by them. Others went along with the Romans and those same religious leaders. Today we might put our hopes in our political institutions. Despite our dissatisfaction with those in Washington, I think we also put a lot of our hope in politicians as well. Some put their hopes in the economy. Others just hope for a job and career that pays them well enough that they don’t have to worry about politics or the economy. Still others put their hopes in social and grass roots political movements.

Those of us who believe in God are supposed to put our hopes in him, but what does that look like? Are we hoping for God to come and pass judgment on our political and economic systems? On our enemies?  Are we even aware that he may just come and pass judgment on our “temple” on our religious systems: our theological formulations, our lists of do’s and don’ts, and the prejudices they produce? Are we hoping that he will just bless our political or social endeavors as we pray in our prayer of confession? What do we hope for? What are we waiting for?

For us as Christians to “wait patiently in expectation” is not an easy task. After predicting that the temple will be destroyed, Jesus paints a frightful picture. There will be wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes. Although Jesus is speaking specifically about the Roman invasion of Israel when they destroyed the temple in AD 60, I think these words can still speak to us today. The worldwide situation, we might say, may become filled with chaos. Tensions between Iran and the US and China and North and South Korea may grow. There may be fires in California and hurricanes in North Carolina, but Jesus says in verse 7, “the end is still to come.”

The chaos in the world, however, is just the backdrop for an equally frightful yet more intimate picture. Jesus tells the disciples that they will be persecuted by the religious leaders. They will be arrested and put on trial before governors and kings. They may even come to the same fate as he does, and many of them did. While we hope in God, that does not mean that we as Christians are exempt from suffering. Rather, we may suffer even more than others because we follow Jesus.

A few weeks ago we talked about how we live in a culture of fear. Our fears are heightened by mass shootings, contested election results, trade wars and rumors of war. Henri Nouwen once said, “Fearful people have a hard time waiting, because when we are afraid we want to get away from where we are. But if we cannot flee, we may fight instead.”[2] He goes on to say how fear and anger are the enemies of true Christian spirituality, which is a spirituality of waiting. But if there are two things that characterize the emotional state of this nation, they are fear and anger. So how do we wait patiently in expectation in the midst of a culture of fear and anger? By flight or fight?

That brings us back to our main question. We can only wait patiently in expectation if we know what we are waiting for. Jesus says that all these fearful things that will take place do not necessarily signal the end, “The end is still to come,” he says. Rather, he says, they signal a new beginning. “These are the beginning of birth pains.”

Jesus has been preaching all through the gospel of Mark the good news of the coming Kingdom of God. We are waiting for the Kingdom. We are waiting for the joining together of heaven and earth. We are waiting for the time when all humanity will recognize God as their creator and Jesus as their King. We are waiting for a time when God will come to dwell once again within the creation. Jesus, the word of God made flesh, Immanuel, God with us, was a foretaste of our hope that God would one day fully and openly dwell with humanity once again as God walked with Adam and Eve. That is what we are waiting for.

But that begs another question, if we are waiting for the Kingdom, how does the Kingdom come? I believe this is one of the most important questions we as Christians need to answer today, because I believe many Christians are answering it in the wrong way. Many Christians like to focus on the truth that Jesus has been victorious. As it says in our reading from Hebrews, he has offered himself as the sacrifice to take away the sins of the world and he has sat down at the right hand of God. Jesus now reigns.

Many Christians, however, assume that since Jesus is on the throne that God has now changed tactics. Now that Jesus is on the throne the kingdom is going to come by Christians exerting their power in the world. Faced now with opposition, faced now with waning influence in a secular world, many Christians believe it is time to fight. They believe that Christians should seek to gain political power. They should seek influence in the media and in the corporate world. They should focus on and try to win the “culture wars.” Many behave as though the coming of the Kingdom is about extending Christian influence in the world and forcing others to conform to Christian ethics and beliefs.

But what does our text say? Our text says that the disciples will not become governors or CEO’s, but that they will be arrested and put on trial before governors and kings. But it says more than that if we look at the context. We have noted over the past weeks how this sermon in chapter 13 follows five stories that center around the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. In Mark chapter 2 there is also a series of five stories in which Jesus gets into arguments with the religious authorities. Mark concludes those stories saying, “Then the Pharisees [that is, some of the religious authorities] began to plot with the Herodians [that is, some Jews who supported the political authorities] how they might kill Jesus.” In our text this second set of conflict stories ends with Jesus telling his disciples that they will be “flogged in the synagogues” and that they will “stand [on trial] before governors and kings.” They, like Jesus, will not assume religious or political power, but they will be persecuted by the religious and political powers.

Jesus brought in the Kingdom by proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom, by welcoming the outcasts and the sinners into his company, and by curing the sick and casting out demons. Ultimately, however, he brought in the kingdom by dying on a cross and rising from the dead. But after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, God’s game plan does not change, only the players. Jesus tells the disciples that they will be persecuted, but the end is not yet because “the gospel must first be preached to all the nations” and that they will stand before governors and king as witnesses. The kingdom comes by the Disciples of Christ, by you and me, following in the actual footsteps of Jesus. Christians are called to influence the world in politics, economics and the social realm. But not by flight or by fight, but by bearing witness.

We hope in the Kingdom and we wait patiently in expectation by taking up our cross and following Jesus. We are able to do this because we are not the only ones waiting. In our epistle reading it says, “But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool” (10:12-13).

It is tempting to take this language as language that validates the Christian pursuit of power over our enemies. Jesus is waiting until his enemies have been made his footstool, put down under his feet. But is that what this means? Several times throughout scripture it says that heaven is God’s throne and earth is God’s footstool. Sometimes the image is that the temple in Jerusalem is God’s footstool. Numerous times the people of God are called to come before God and worship at his footstool. This is not an image of military victory over one’s enemies; it is an image of rebellious children of God being forgiven and worshipping their savior. Listen to what follows, “This is the covenant I will make with them … I will put my law in their hearts and I will write them on their minds” and “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” In Jeremiah these words were spoken about the nation of Israel. Here the author applies them to Jesus’ enemies, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Jesus is waiting for his enemies to be made holy.

So what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for the Kingdom of God? Are you waiting for the time when heaven and earth will be joined and God will make his dwelling with humanity once again? Are you waiting for Jesus to forgive the sins of those who continue to rebel against God? Are you waiting for Jesus to give them new hearts so that they may know and follow God’s laws? Are you waiting for Jesus to make them Holy? Are you waiting for that day when they join with us in worship? Are you waiting for what Jesus is waiting for? Then let us follow the words of Hebrews and “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with full assurance of faith” and “let us spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”  Let us wait with patient expectation by bearing witness to the love and mercy of God by worshipping him and through our deeds of loving kindness. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Completing and perfecting god, in your Son’s cross you took on the grief and failure of the world, and in his resurrection you dismantled the power of sin and death. Look with mercy on all your people whose longings are unmet. When your children plead for the chance to be creative, productive, or nurturing, give them gentleness, fulfillment and purpose. When your people yearn to bring joy to the life of others, comfort to the afflicted, or trust to the wounded, give them courage, wisdom, and patience. When your kingdom seems far off, strengthen you church to wait with faith and hope and love, until the day when you are all in all, on God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen[3]



[1] Quoted in Henri Nouwen, “A Spirituality of Waiting: Being Alert to God’s Presence in Our Lives,” in The Weavings Reader: Living with God in the World (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1993), 70.

[2] Nouwen, 66.

[3] Samuel Wells and Abigail Kocher, Eucharistic Prayers (Grand Rapids, 2016: Eerdmans), 327.

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November 11, 2018 The Appearance of Righteousness
(Mark 12:38-44; Hebrews 9:24-28) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] A couple of weeks ago we talked a bit about Halloween and how sometimes people do scary things on Halloween. But people also just do fun stuff on Halloween. When I was little I often picked costumes for Halloween that weren’t scary but just fun. One year I was a football player and another year I was a cowboy. On Halloween people dress up as someone else just for fun. But sometimes we pretend to be someone we are not. Sometimes we might pretend to be smarter than we are so someone will like us. Or we might pretend that we like a certain movie because someone else likes that movie.

Jesus once told his disciples about some people who pretended to be something they were not. He warned the disciples about the teachers of the Law who liked to dress in long robes and then go to the temple so everyone would see them at the temple. They liked to sit in the best places at church so everyone would see them at church. And when it was their turn to pray, they prayed really long prayers so everyone would think that they loved God and obeyed him perfectly. But they did all this as if they were wearing a costume. It was all pretend because if there was a person who was in need, they wouldn’t help them. And even worse, they would steal from people who had less than them.

Well when you dress up for Halloween, I bet that no matter what costume you wear, your parents know who you are. You might be able to go around your neighborhood and your neighbors won’t know you, but your parents always know who you are. It is like that with God. We might pretend to be something we are not, but God always knows who we really are. When I was young and dressed up for Halloween, I was always glad my parents knew who I was. And when there were those times I pretended to be something I wasn’t so someone at school might like me, I was always glad I never had to pretend with my parents. In the same way I am glad that we never have to pretend with God. He always knows who we are. God knows we are not perfect who we don’t have to pretend with God. He knows who we are and we can know that we are his.
[End of Children’s Sermon]

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Today is Veteran’s day, a day when we remember and recognize those who have served their country in the various branches of the military. To serve in the military is to offer your life for the good of the country. It is an honorable and selfless thing to do. It is a sacrifice some make on behalf of the many.

On some special days last week’s World Hunger Sunday, I have to watch myself that I say that we are recognizing, or remembering such and such a day instead of celebrating such and such a day. We remember and recognize the tragedy of 9/11 each year on its anniversary, but we don’t celebrate it. We remember and recognize those soldiers who gave their lives in service to their country on Memorial Day, but we don’t celebrate that they died. We recognize World Hunger Sunday, but we don’t celebrate the fact that 462 million adults around the world are underweight and that 155 million children under the age of 5 suffer from stunted growth.

For some of the same reasons I hesitate a bit to say that we celebrate Veterans Day. There are things we can celebrate on Veterans Day. We can celebrate the end of past wars. We can celebrate that many veterans returned home. But while I honor and deeply appreciate the service and the sacrifice our veterans have made, I find it hard to celebrate their service because I cannot celebrate the cause of their service.  The only reason that people serve in any military anywhere is because nations go to war against one another. The only reason we have veterans is that we live in a world in which we sometimes find it necessary to authorize some men and some women to kill others. I find that hard to celebrate. While it is good and right to honor veterans for their sacrifice, their bravery, and their service, I never want to glorify war.  

Likewise, we should be cautious about how we consider the widow in our Gospel lesson this morning. It would be easy to hold the widow up as a hero of faith. It would be easy to say that we should all emulate her. When we pass around the offering plate later in the service will you be giving “large amounts” out of your wealth? Or will you be putting in everything – all you have to live on?  She gave much out of her poverty, but what is wealth? Can your wealth compare to the love of God? Can your wealth compare to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross? In the face of Christ is not our wealth utter poverty? Shouldn’t we all, wealthy or poor, follow the example of the widow and give all that we have?

Jesus, however, does not simply hold up the widow as an example of righteous behavior that we ought to emulate. And Mark places deliberately this story in his narrative in such a way to make it more than just an illustration of self-sacrifice. As we saw last week, this story takes place within a larger section that begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey while the crowds proclaim that he is the Son of David. It is the story of the return of the Messiah to Jerusalem. The section ends with his sermon in chapter 13 which has much to do with his “return” at the end of the age. The main theme of the section is the nature of his authority as the Messiah which is played out through a series of controversies between Jesus and the religious authorities in the center of the section. All the action takes place in the temple and Jesus’ critique centers the temple system. The two short stories we read this morning are structurally mirrored by two stories at the beginning of the section in which Jesus critiques the temple system – he curses the fig tree that has failed to produce fruit and he cleanses the temple of the money changers and those selling sacrificial animals. Last week I argued that those stories had to do with injustice. Thus the stories today also has to do with injustice.

This is obvious in the first story. Jesus criticizes the religious leaders for their hypocrisy. As religious leaders they are supposed to set an example of righteousness. The people should be able to look to them to see how one ought to live one’s life in the presence of God. The religious leaders, love to be looked to. “They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect,” Jesus says. They desire “the most important seats in the synagogue and the places of honor at banquets.” They carry on as though they should be looked at and imitated. But, says Jesus, “They devour widow’s houses and for a show make lengthy prayers.” They are not concerned with matters of justice or mercy, and their religious behavior is only for show.

Now scholars aren’t certain exactly how the religious leaders might have “devoured widows’ houses,” but the following story gives us a possibility. The teachers of the law and other religious leaders did not receive a salary for their work, but lived on the charity of the people. Like the televangelists, they could have preyed upon those who were really in no position to support them, like widows. In the second story Jesus points out a widow who gives everything she has to the temple treasury. While we may be tempted to uphold her as an example of self-sacrificial giving, we shouldn’t gloss over the fact that she is living under or within a religious system in which she feels it necessary to give all she has to live on.

So let us respect and honor this widow for her act of generosity, but let us not celebrate the unjust system that has pressured her into giving all she has to live on. Let us not say to those who are poor that their poverty does not really matter, that what really matters is spiritual things. Let us not use this poor widow to say that the church should not be involved in politics. It is often said that we should love the sinner but hate the sin. In this case we should love the saint but hate the system.

So Jesus warns us of the hypocrisy of the wealthy and the religious elites. He warns us against false and empty demonstrations of righteousness. They put on the appearance of righteousness while upholding a system that bleeds the poor dry. But where is the alternative? Where can we find a true demonstration of righteousness?

Last week we saw that the love of God and neighbor is at center of Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders. After several religious leaders challenge Jesus’ authority, someone who is impressed by Jesus’ answers asks, “What is the greatest commandment.” Jesus responds “The most important one is this … ‘Love the Lord your God’ … The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” So Jesus’ criticizes the religious authorities and the wealthy elites because they put on an appearance of righteousness, they appear to love God, but they fail to love their neighbor. And if they fail to love their neighbor, then they cannot truly love God.

In the next story, the story that precedes our text for this morning, Jesus turns the tables on his interrogators. He asks the crowds, “Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the Son of David? David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?”

When you read this passage, do you wonder, “What in the world is Jesus talking about? What is this all about?” Well, I have been making the case that this whole section is about the true nature of authority, the authority of Jesus, the Messiah. Here we have the Lord, that is, God, Yahweh, speaking to David’s Lord, the Messiah, telling him to take his place on his heavenly throne. The Messiah’s authority is based upon his righteousness.

We normally think of righteousness as good and right and moral behavior. But righteousness in the biblical sense is a declaration of our status before God. It is a declaration that we are right with God. Right behavior, loving behavior, then flows out of our relationship with God. Loving behavior is authoritative behavior not only because it is generative, but because it flows from our relationship with the being from which all things derive their being.

Earlier in this section the religious leaders begin their challenges of Jesus in 11:28 by asking him, “By what authority are you doing these things? … Who gave you authority to do this?” Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer, but turns the table on them. But here, in 12:35, Jesus gives them a straight answer. The Messiah is given his authority by God. He received his authority in heaven. Jesus’ authority comes from his standing before God who has given him his throne. His authority comes from his righteousness.

And so the story in Mark goes. Out of that righteousness Jesus acts with loving authority, or with authoritative love. He has returned to Jerusalem to reclaim the throne of David, but he does so not by taking up a sword, but by taking up a cross. And as he predicted, the chief priests and teachers of the law arrest him and hand him over to the Romans. He is mocked and beaten and lifted up on a cross. He dies and is buried. But when some of the women come three days later to anoint Jesus’ body with spices, they find an angel at the tomb who says,  “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Looking back on all this, the author of the letter to the Hebrews explains that the actions Jesus took in Jerusalem were mirrored by things that happened in heaven. On earth Jesus entered into Jerusalem, he cleansed the temple, and then he offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. In heaven, through this same death, Jesus entered the true temple for he entered into the very presence of God. In verse 24 it says “For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. … he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

The teachers of the Law made an appearance, a show, of righteousness in the temple courts with their flowing robes and their long prayers. But true righteousness appeared in heaven in bodily form in the resurrected Jesus. And through his righteousness Jesus now invites all to have faith in him and so to be joined to him. Those who are joined to him by faith are considered righteous by God. God declares us to be right with him. He forgives our sins and remembers them no more. Having been joined to Jesus through faith, having been made righteous by his loving sacrifice, we are thus called to live out of the righteousness granted to us by the grace and mercy of God.

You see, when we try to be righteous ourselves, when we try to of our own efforts to obey God and to be good people, we often end up like the teachers of the law. We end up putting up an appearance of righteousness. But God can always see through our flowing robes and our “long prayers.” He knows that we are not perfect. He knows that we are still sinful. But yet he has come to us in Jesus and through Jesus he forgives our sins and declares that we are righteous.  And having been declared righteous, being sure that we are in good standing before God, we are freed from the necessity of all pretense. We don’t have to appear to be righteous. Instead we are freed to love. We are freed to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. And we are freed to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

[Silence]

Lord our God, in Jesus Christ you have taught us

that love is the fulfilling of the law.

Send your Holy Spirit upon us,

and pour into our hearts

that most excellent gift of love,

that we may love you with our whole being,

and our neighbors as ourselves;

through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you in unity with the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.

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November 4, 2018 The First Commandment of All
(Mark 12:28-34) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] When I was young I remember sometimes I didn’t like the rules my parents had, or understand why they had the rules that they had. Sometimes I would ask, “Why do I have to go to bed at 9:00? Why can’t I stay up until 9:30? Why do I have to eat my vegetables? Why do I have to clean my room?” Sometimes my parents had reasons for why they made the rules they made. But even if they told me those reasons, sometimes I would ask again, “But why?” When I did that my parents would sometimes respond with, “Because I said so.”

Now as a child, I never liked this answer very much. It never really told me why I had to do something or why I couldn’t do something. But as a parent, I have come to understand why parents say this. I have sometimes told Evan or Elise, “Because I said so,” when they have asked why they have to follow a rule.

When parents say, “Because I said so,” here is what I think they often mean. As a parent I want to do what is best for my child. It is your parent’s job to do what is best for you. They love you and want you to grow up to be the best person you can be. They make rules because they think to become the best person you can be means you need certain things like enough sleep, and good food. You also need to learn to behave in certain ways, with kindness and respect and so on. When they say “Because I said so,” it means because of their experience, because they are older, they believe that following this rule will be good for you, and will help you become the best person you can be. In short, they make these rules because they love you.

In the Gospel of Mark, Mark tells of one time when a teacher of the law came up to Jesus and asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus answers, “The most important one is “Love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There are no more important commands than these.” You see, love is the greatest commandment because all the other commandments help us learn how to love God and to love others. And love is the greatest commandment because God made all the commandments so that we could be the best people we can be. So we are. So we should obey the most important commandments to love God and our neighbor because God said so, which means because God loves us and wants us to be the best people we can be. [End of Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Of all the stories Mark tells in his gospel we might be most tempted to lift this story out of its context and hold it up as something that stands on its own. We might think that the command to love God and neighbor has no “context” because it is the context for everything else. Jesus says love is the first, the greatest, the most important commandment. In Matthew’s version Jesus says that all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments. The Apostle Paul proclaimed that love is the fulfillment of the law. Love is thus the basis for everything else. But when we pull this out of context and we ask “Why is love the greatest commandment?”, we get an answer that is like, “Because I told you so.” Without a context, we can’t see the true importance of God’s command to love.

Last week I argued that Jesus redefined, or corrected the common definition of the Kingdom of God in the first half of the gospel and of the “Messiah” in the previous section of the gospel. This week’s lesson comes in the next section of the Gospel which I believe has to do with the nature of authority and the appropriate response to authority. This section begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey as the crowds proclaim him the Messiah– Jesus thus makes a claim to authority while critiquing our notion of authority. The section ends with Jesus’ teaching about the end times which centers around the return of the Messiah and the establishment of the Kingdom – again it is about authority.

But Mark’s teaching on the nature of authority has two sides. First the true and good example of authority in Jesus, and second Jesus’ critique of the false and wicked example of authority in the Jewish religious leaders. After entering Jerusalem Jesus clears out the temple of those selling animals and trading money. His sermon at the end of the section in chapter 13 begins with a prophecy of the literal destruction of the temple. In the middle of the section are several stories in which the religious leaders confront Jesus around issues of authority while he is teaching in the temple. The whole section is thus steeped in Jesus’ critique of the Jewish leaders and the religious system they uphold which is centered in the temple.

So Jesus establishes his authority and he critiques the authority of the Jewish leaders, but why? Because they bear no fruit. Because they do not have the appropriate response to God’s authority. The story of the cleansing of the temple is surrounded by the story of the fig tree that bears no fruit. This is soon followed by the parable of the tenants who fail to provide the owner of the vineyard with the fruit they are required to provide. There is no time to defend this now, but I will next week, but let me suggest that Mark evokes Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah 5. Isaiah draws an image of Israel as a vineyard planted by God. He then says, “Then [God] looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. … he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” The fruit God and Jesus look for is the righteous and just behavior of God’s people, but they only produce bad fruit.

Mark thus invites us to understand the greatest commandments, the commandments to love God and to love our neighbor, in the context of authority and our response to God’s authority. God, you see, exercises the authority of love so that we respond in kind. When love forms the foundation of our actions, we produce the fruit of justice and righteousness.

So what do love and authority have to do with each other? How does understanding God’s command to love him and our neighbor in the context of authority help us? Andy Crouch defines authority as the capacity to take meaningful action.[1] Parents have innate authority because they are responsible for raising their children. Many of the actions they take with respect to their children are authoritative actions because they have an effect on the children for good or for ill. They are meaningful actions. A worker in a widget factory who just presses a button to start or stop a conveyor belt has little authority. His actions are constrained. They have little meaning.

But what makes an action meaningful, or for that matter good? What determines if the authority we exercise is good or not? Well let’s think about the word “authority” for a bit. Authority is related to the word “author.” To have authority, or at least good authority, is to author something. It is to be creative. An action is meaningful if it is creative in some way. If my preaching inspires you to love God and your neighbor more, then I am preaching with authority. As a parent we hope to sort of be co-authors of our children’s lives.  We do what we do so that they grow and become who God desires them to be. Parents want to contribute to the ongoing creation of the persons our children are becoming. Good authority is thus generative and it leads to the flourishing of others.

We can therefore see the close connection between authority and love, for what is more generative than love. In the beginning God spoke with both authority and love as he formed space in this universe for life to spring out of the seas and out of the ground. He spoke with loving authority as he made humankind in his image and told them to be fruitful and multiply and to act, like God, as God’s representatives with loving authority over the rest of creation.

Mark places this story in the midst of stories about Jesus’ authority, and stories about Jesu’s critique of the Jewish leader’s authority, to say that love is that which forms the basis of true and good authority. Love is the basis for all true and good meaningful action.

But what about false and evil meaningful action? There is not time to spell all this out in detail, but the surrounding stories demonstrate that false and evil authority is based on fear, selfishness, hatred, lack of compassion, on a host of things other than love. False authority thus leads not to generativity, but to degeneration, dissolution, fragmentation, and breakdown. True authority leads to justice and righteousness; false authority to injustices and oppression.

Jesus embodies this critique when he clears out the temple of the money changers and those selling sacrificial animals. You know that if you go to an event like a concert or a big football game, the price of parking climbs higher and higher the closer you go. And if you buy a hotdog in the stadium it costs twice as much as at the vendor on the street. The money changers and those selling animals are in the temple because pilgrims who have travelled far need temple coins for their offerings and animals for their sacrifices. Those who live near the temple by would be able to bring their own animals and would have an opportunity to change their money elsewhere. But the pilgrims must pay a premium price to worship. Jesus is mad not only because this activity disrupts the prayer and worship in the temple but also because the pilgrims coming to the temple are being ripped off. The temple system is unjust because it is based on profits and power rather than on loving authority.

So love forms the basis of true authority because authority and love are both generative and creative. What then is the appropriate response to God’s loving authority? The word authority is also related to the word authorize. God not only uses his authority over us to command certain things, he uses his loving authority to authorize our actions. We were made in God’s image and so the appropriate response to God’s authority is to exercise authority as he does. The point of being made in his image is that we are authorized to act in his image.

My friends, God so desires us to be the best people we can be. Let us therefore love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. And let us love our neighbors as ourselves. In doing so we will carry out meaningful action in loving authority as God’s authorized agents in the world. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Silence]

Almighty God, we love you for you are good and kind and faithful and merciful to us and to all people. In Christ Jesus your love became embodied in flesh and blood. Grant us the gift of your Spirit so that we might imitate Christ Jesus in all we do and so love our neighbors as ourselves. For it is in Jesus name we pray. Amen.



[1] Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2013).

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October 28, 2018 What do you want me to do for you?
(Mark 10:46-52) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning’s gospel reading has a lot to do with seeing, with sight, with how we see things. So what do you see in this picture (a stack of money)? Now some people just see a bunch of money, but if I were to tell you that I would give you all this money, then what would you “see”? Some people would see all the stuff they might buy with this money. They might see some shoes they have wanted, maybe some toys, maybe they would see some special snacks they would buy. But other people might see what they could do with this money. Maybe they would see someone who was sick and the medicine this money could buy for them. Maybe they would see someone who was hungry and the meal this money could buy for them. Maybe they would see someone who didn’t have a home, and they would see a place for them to stay.

In the gospel of Mark Jesus has told his disciples that he is the Christ, which means he is the Son of David. It means he is the King of Israel (holds up a crown). Last week we read a story about the disciples James and John. When they saw Jesus’ as the King they asked Jesus if they could sit at his right hand and his left hand when he became King. That meant that they wanted some of Jesus’ power. They wanted other people to look up at them and honor them. They wanted to be able to tell other people what to do. When they see Jesus’ crown, they see a chance for their own power.

This morning we will read that when Jesus went through Jericho, he passed by a blind man named Bartimaeus. Now even though Bartimaeus couldn’t see, he knew Jesus was the King, so he shouted out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus stopped and asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”  So who do you think truly saw Jesus as he truly was? James and John? Or blind Bartimaeus? [End of children’s sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

What do you want me to do for you?” It is not only interesting to note, but significant, that Jesus asks this question not only of Bartimaeus, but also of James and John. With this question Mark links our story from this morning with the preceding story which we read last week. Notice also the repetition of “Son.”  Jesus, the Son of David asks Bartimaeus, the Son of Honor, and James and John, the Sons of Thunder, “What do you want me to do for you?” Mark links these stories. He wants us to read them side by side, so let’s compare and contrast them a bit.

Let me also invite you to look at this passage, or rather these two passages from two different perspectives. First we can look at these passages from the perspective of those who seek Jesus out. Second, we can look at these passages from Jesus’ perspective. The first may reveal something about ourselves, the second something about how we ought to follow Jesus.

So first, from the perspective of those who seek Jesus out. Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” How would you answer if Jesus asked you? It is a revealing question if you think about it.  Last week we saw how fear can reveal our deepest desires, but so can Jesus’ question. James and John want seats of power. Bartimaeus wants to see. We also get a sense of what each person in these stories desires by how they address Jesus. James and John come to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Bartimaeus calls out from the side of the road. He gets pushed back down and told to be quiet, but he calls out all the louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me?” So how are you addressing Jesus? What do you want Jesus to do for you? What are your deepest desires?

So why do you seek Jesus out? “What do you want [Jesus] to do for you?” What is the purpose of religion for you? For it is through religious practices that we seek Jesus out. It is through religious practices that we worship God. We come to church to read God’s scriptures, to pray to him, to confess our sins and receive his mercy. But what is the point of it all? Why are you here? What do you seek? Do you seek solace from a busy week? Are you looking for some nice words to think about and maybe make you believe that this world isn’t as bad as it sometimes seems? Are you looking to get some sense of approval from God? Are you looking to be healed? Forgiven? Or maybe you just like being with other people you call friends. What is the point of it all?

According to Jesus the point of it all is the Kingdom of God. Mark sums up Jesus’ ministry several times by saying that Jesus’ went through the towns healing the sick and proclaiming the good news of Kingdom of God. Jesus begins many of his parables with the words, “The kingdom of God is like.” There aren’t many parables in the Gospel of Mark, but every single one of them, whether or not they begin with “The kingdom of God is like,” is about the Kingdom of God. We may have come here for a variety of reasons, but Jesus gathers us here because of the Kingdom of God.

But what is the Kingdom of God? What is the Kingdom of God like? I have argued over the past weeks that this section in Mark, which ends with the healing of Bartimaeus and began with Jesus telling his disciples that he is the Christ, is all about Jesus redefining what Christ, what Messiah, and thus what King means. Jesus has come not as a revolutionary warrior to fight the Romans, but as the Lamb of God to take up a cross. And so as Jesus redefines what he means by Messiah, the Son of David, he continues his redefinition of the Kingdom of God found in his parables and his other teachings in the first half of the gospel.

The problem with James and John is that when they hear the Kingdom of God, they stop with the word Kingdom and then insert “of Israel” in place of God. They are seeking a worldly kingdom: A kingdom like all the other kingdoms of the world, except that they expect God to be on their side. How often do we do the same thing? In our prayer of confession, we have been praying, “We too often ask you to bless what we do rather than seeking to do what you bless.” How often do we go about our business, building or managing our own kingdoms and then turn to God and ask him to bless our work? How often do we ask if what we are doing actually lines up with the values, the goals, and, and this is important, the methods of the Kingdom of God? How often do we assume that expanding the power and influence of the church is equal to the expansion of the Kingdom of God on earth? How often, like James and John, do Christians seek positions of power and prestige for themselves or for the church and assume that they are serving the Kingdom?

What I have been trying to argue over the past weeks is that the method of Jesus’ ministry is not only just as important as the goal of his ministry, it is part and parcel of the goal of his ministry. He refuses to take up worldly power and instead submits to it through the cross not only to overcome the powers of sin and death that rampage over this world, but to demonstrate the very nature of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ method, the cross, is not just a means to an end, it is a mark of the Kingdom of God. It is an example of the Kingdom. No, more so, it is a manifestation of the Kingdom. The cross is an instance of the Kingdom of God.

But for some reason Christians throughout the ages have forgotten this. We seem to think that the nature of the Kingdom of God changed once Jesus ascended to his throne in heaven. We seem to think that all that sacrificial stuff was just about getting our sins forgiven and not about what it means to live in the Kingdom of God. We seem to think a lot like James and John who come seeking a share in Jesus’ power. But Jesus only promises them a share in his suffering and in his service, for that is the true nature of the Kingdom of God.

So we can come to Jesus like James and John, seeking a share in Jesus’ power and glory and honor. Or, we can come to Jesus like Bartimaeus, saying “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” We can come to Jesus knowing that we are in need of Jesus, that we are in need of God, and that we are in need of mercy. Bartimaeus comes to Jesus knowing he is blind, His deepest desire is to see. Do we come knowing that we are blind? Is our deepest desire to see? Do we know what our deepest need is?

Now at this point we have to be careful. We can spiritualize Bartimaeus’ blindness and so dismiss it.  Christians have too often spiritualized the poor person’s poverty, and the lame person’s disability only to dismiss them. Christians have too often seen the physical needs of the people in the gospels simply as symbols of our supposedly “true” and “deeper” spiritual needs. We all sing with John Newton, “I was blind but now I see,” knowing that Newton was never physically blind, but spiritually blind. It tells of Newton’s conversion to faith in Christ. So we tell ourselves that we don’t have to worry about physical blindness, or physical poverty, for the Kingdom of God is a spiritual reality.

The problem is that if we spiritualize the stories of Jesus’ healings, we miss the radical nature of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was not just converting people in a religious sense so that they might follow him. He was releasing them from a religious system that was also a social system that oppressed them. People assumed the blind, the lame, the deaf, and the poor were in those situations because of their own sin. They assumed that such people were unrighteous. Many of them were unclean according to the cleanliness laws and so ostracized from the community. People assumed that they were not a part of the true people of God and thus would be left out of God’s kingdom when it came. But Jesus proclaimed that the good news of the Kingdom was not only that it was coming, but that it belonged to such as these, the poor, the blind, the lame, and to sinners.

When we spiritualize Jesus’ healings, then we can easily come to Jesus from the perspective of James and John. We can take on all the trappings of religion. We can appear to be a devout follower of Jesus. We can make it appear that our deepest desire is to serve God and the Kingdom. But our deepest desire will be for a kingdom not like the Kingdom of God, but like any other kingdom of this world. Richard Rhor, a Franciscan Friar and author, has famously said, “Religion is one of the safest places to hide from God.” By appearing religious, saying all the right things, singing all the right songs, we can appear to be followers of Jesus, while we hide from God. And we hide from God because we avoid all the places God shows up. For God and Jesus keep showing up by the side of slaves, in the midst of the poor, healing the blind, and sitting at table with sinners.

But Jesus heals Bartimaeus physically, socially, and spiritually. The blind man, more than any of the disciples, saw Jesus for who he was: the Son of David who came to have mercy on the poor and the outcast. Jesus therefore heals Bartimaeus not only so that he can physically see, but also that he can freely follow Jesus and join the new community of the Kingdom of God forming around Jesus. As with all those he healed, Jesus gives Bartimaeus a new spiritual life as well as new physical life. The kingdoms of this world separate the spiritual from the physical and then use the spiritual as a means to worldly power. They appear religious, but they use religion to seek a seat to the right and left of the king. The Kingdom of God, however, joins the spiritual and the physical and advances in this world not through worldly power, but through worldly weakness.

So what do you want Jesus to do for you? Do you want him to affirm and bless your desires for power, or prestige, or success? Are you coming to him like James and John, asking, “Do for me whatever I ask?” Or are you coming to him like Bartimaeus? “Lord Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me?” Are you coming to him recognizing your need for him? Do you admit your dependence on him?

That’s the question these texts ask us if we approach them from the perspective of those who come to Jesus. But what do these texts ask us if we approach them from the perspective of Jesus? They ask us how are we going to follow Jesus. How are we going to serve Jesus and the kingdom? What is the method of our ministry?

James and John seek positions of power and so they hope to serve Jesus from positions of power. But Jesus tells them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right and left is not for me to grant.” You will, in other words be led into suffering and service if you follow me for “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” Power is the method of the kingdoms of this world; service and suffering are the methods of the Kingdom of God.

And that brings us back to Jesus’ question. “What do you want me to do for you?” is a question a King may ask a loyal subject, but it is also a question a servant asks a master. Throughout the gospel, Jesus almost never initiates contact with individual people. He preaches and teaches to large groups, but individuals come to him. When he gets into disputes with the Pharisees or the Sadducees, they come to him seeking to trap him with a question. When he heals someone, they come to him or are brought to him by friends. The only exception is the man in the Synagogue with the withered hand whom Jesus heals to demonstrate that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. The only individuals Jesus approaches are the disciples he calls to follow him.

As we have seen, Jesus method of brining in the Kingdom is through sacrifice and through service, but it is also through invitation. Through his preaching and teaching and healing, Jesus invited all to join with this new community of the Kingdom of God and to follow him. Now that Jesus reigns in heaven, we who follow Jesus, are God’s invitation to others to enter into this new community of the Kingdom and to follow Jesus. How are we living as invitations for others to see Jesus? How are we living as invitations for other to see Jesus as Immanuel, the God who came to be with us? Invitations to see Jesus as the Lord who came to serve. Invitations to see Jesus as the King who came to heal. Invitations to see Jesus as the Lamb who came to give his life as a ransom for many. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Silence] Merciful God, you sent Jesus among us to seek and save the lost, to heal the sick, to let the oppressed go free, to give sight to the blind. Grant that we, like Bartimaeus, may readily see Jesus as the Son of David, joyfully receive his mercy, and eagerly follow him as our Lord and Savior. May our lives point others to Christ and to his kingdom. For it is in his name that we pray. Amen.

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October 21, 2018 Not so with you.
(Mark 10:35-45) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Fall is finally here. The leaves are turning color. It is getting colder out. The sun goes down earlier and comes up later. That means that a certain fall holiday is coming soon. Halloween is right around the corner. What are some of the things people do on Halloween?

People do all kinds of things for Halloween, but a lot of the things have something in common. People do a lot of scary things for Halloween. People dress up as ghosts or witches and monsters. They decorate their yards or their walls with grave stones and skeletons. People go to haunted houses. Maybe they watch scary movies. I never quite understood this, but some people like to be scared. Do you like to be scared? Do you like scary things?

What do you do when you are scared? What helps you when you are afraid? When I am afraid, I like to be find someone else to be with. When I was young I would find my mom or dad or maybe my older brother. When you are afraid it helps just to be with someone else, but what really helps is to be with someone who loves you. The Bible tells us in 1 John 4:18 that “perfect love drives out fear.” When we know that someone loves us, we know that someone cares for us. We know that we are not alone. And that helps drive away our fear.  Now our parents and grandparents love us lots, but what really drives out fear is perfect love, and only God loves us perfectly. So if you are ever afraid, find someone who loves you, and then let their love for you remind you of God’s perfect love for you. [End of Childern’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

If you will recall from the previous weeks, Jesus has openly admitted to his followers that he is the Christ. He has laid claim to the throne of David. He is the rightful King of Israel. His disciples and his followers therefore dream of major changes coming to pass in their lives and in the fortunes of Israel. A Messiah means that God is going to act to save his people. A Messiah means that Israel’s enemies will be overcome. A Messiah means that Israel will be freed from her oppressors.

But Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem with nothing. He has a band of disciples and some followers, but they are not armed. He has no army. A shadow of fear falls upon his followers and envelops them like an early morning fog. For his part Jesus seems to be of little help. He doesn’t calm their fears. He doesn’t tell them how God will send a heavenly host of angels to fight for them. Instead, he names their worst fear: he tells them for the third time that he will be betrayed into the hands of the religious leaders and crucified. What then, his followers wonder, will happen to them? Are not those who follow him in danger as well? If Jesus is arrested as a subversive revolutionary, what is to prevent the authorities from arresting and crucifying his followers? If claiming to be the Messiah is treasonous, is not following a Messiah also treasonous?

We read the gospel stories so often and they are so familiar to us that we easily skim over the depth of the drama. When we read that Jesus is heading for Jerusalem while openly claiming to be the rightful King of Israel, do we appreciate the danger he and his followers are in? We know how the story turns out so it is easy to dismiss the disciples’ fear as just short sightedness, and perhaps willful ignorance. Hasn’t Jesus told them that he will rise again after dying? But how many of us who believe in Jesus resurrection, who believe that we will be raised to life after we die could face imminent death without fear? For that matter, how do we face the fears we have?

So what are our greatest fears? We don’t live in fear of repression by an imperial army. We don’t live in fear of being crucified. But it seems to me that the climate in the United States has been one of growing fear ever since 9/11. I suppose it is understandable that we fear the possibility of a terrorist attacks more than we did 20 years ago. But there are a host of other fears that are greater now than they were 20 years ago that have nothing to do with 9/11. Even though crime rates have dropped over all, people are more afraid of violent crime. Roxann and I let Evan and Elise walk the 6 blocks to South Side Elementary school ten years ago, but recently I have read stories in which parents have been accused of neglect at such behavior.

During President Obama’s tenure, many conservatives stoked fears of socialism – the government is going to take over your health care, the government is going to tax you to death – and by the way, Obama is really a Muslim who has sympathies for ISIS. Today many on the left fear the erosion of our democratic institutions, the freedom of the press, and war with Iran or North Korea. President Trump regularly stokes the fears of his supporters of the danger of the immigrants crossing our borders, of trade deals that decimate our industry, and, of course, the ever-present threat of terrorists. And just this past month the specter of the catastrophic effects of global warming yet to come made landfall with hurricanes Florence and Michael. We live in a fog of fear.

So what are your greatest fears? Perhaps they are among the things I mentioned. Maybe you think some of the things I mentioned are overblown fears, irrational fears. Maybe your greatest fear is more existential. Maybe your faith in God has been challenged by the failures of the church, or by a personal tragedy, or as the truths you grew up with no longer seem to fit with your knowledge of the world. One of my greatest fears is simply this rising tide of fear. Some or many of the fears stoked by the left and the right are baseless. But it is fearsome to think of what people driven by fear may do. People driven by fear think mainly of themselves. They act out of self-preservation. They discount evidence that would counter their fears. People who act out of fear will justify the most egregious of acts.

I bring all this up to make the point that just as we all have our fears, and as we live in a culture of fear, the fear felt by the disciples and Jesus’ followers was real. Mark sets the scene by explicitly drawing our attention to their fear. As Jesus headed toward Jerusalem Mark writes that “the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid.”  Mark therefore invites us to examine our fears, to face them, and to ask what do we do with our fears. Do we suppress them? Do we fight them? Do we allow them to drive us? Do we turn them over to God?

Helen Cepero of North Park Theological Seminary writes, “[Fear] is often the place where God wants to meet us. When we are able to enter into our real fears, we find ourselves on the edge of our true desires as well.” [1] It is interesting to note how James and John respond to their fears and reveal their true desires. After Jesus predicts his death, they approach him and say, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” In other words, once you have defeated the Romans and been crowned as the King of Israel, let us be your Secretary of State and your Minister of Defense.

At the edge of their fears James and John reveal their desire for power and position. This is telling because it also reveals how they believe their fear ought to be dealt with. Fear should drive Jesus and his band of followers toward power. The imperial power of Rome must be met with the imperial power of God and his Messiah. Fear exposes our weakness and our vulnerabilities and drives us to seek power and control.

Is this not how fear drives us? The fear of losing the midterms, the fear of impeachment, the fear of losing the next presidential election has led some on the extreme right to raise the specter of civil unrest, even civil war. Those on the extreme left have raised the possibility of expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court to take it back from the conservatives. In Congressional races across the country any hint of someone being willing to compromise with the other side spells the end of a political career. We have turned politics into an all or nothing game. And it is a game of power. Or maybe fear drives us into hiding. Maybe our fears and doubts about God and the church, or about society in general lead us to just give up on it all as we slide into an apathetic agnosticism. Maybe our desire is not for power, but mere escape.

Jesus turns to James and John and he invites them to face their fears and to live through them as they trust in God. “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” They answer that they can and Jesus affirms that they will endure the same cup and the same baptism, but the end result will not be what they expect for Jesus tells them “to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.”

Jesus invites James and John to live through their fears. Jesus says at the end of our passage, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The cup that Jesus drinks is his crucifixion. It is the cup he shares with his disciples at the last supper during the meal that indicates that Jesus is the new Passover Lamb. The way he is going to overcome fear is to live into it and die to it so that God may show his greater power and his greater love by raising Jesus from the dead. Jesus leads his followers into a life that is beyond fear for it is a life moved by faith.

The cup Jesus drinks points to his crucifixion while the baptism he undergoes is a baptism of service. At Jesus’ baptism the Spirit anointed Jesus for a ministry. Since his baptism Jesus’ ministry has been one of service to the poor, the outcast, and the vulnerable. He has gathered to himself fishermen, tax-collectors, and zealots to be his disciples. He has healed the sick, given sight to the blind, cured the lame, cleansed the unclean, and eaten with sinners. He has reached out to those who live in fear on the edge of society and said, “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Perfect love casts out fear and welcomes the least of these into community.

The cup that James and John each must drink is thus also the cup of suffering and the baptism that they must each must undergo is a baptism into service. The cup they are to drink and the baptism they are to undergo come from living out the gospel, from following Jesus. For Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

The cup of suffering and the baptism of service are linked. They are two side of the same coin. The imagery surrounding baptism has always involved the imagery of death and rebirth. The Israelites went down into the waters of the Red Sea where the waters swallowed up their Egyptian rulers. In coming up out of the waters they had to put to death their old way of life as slaves and take on their new way of life as children of God. Jonah was baptized through his ordeal in the belly of the fish. His actions and his speech were reborn, but the story ends without answering the question of whether or not his heart followed suit. The apostle Paul teaches that the baptism we receive in Christ is a union with his death as our old selves are put to death and a union with his resurrection as our new selves come to life.

Jesus thus assures James and John that if they continue to follow him then they will experience suffering, but they will also undergo a baptism that leads them through death and into new life. They will undergo a baptism in which their old selves with its desire for power and prestige, will be put to death. But this death will make way for their new selves, through which they will live lives in service to God and the Kingdom, which means they will live as servants to all. When the other disciples heard about Jesus’ conversation with James and John they became indignant. But Jesus said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

How then will James and John face their fears? How will we face our fears? From where will we obtain the courage to put aside our desire for power and control over others? From where will we summon the determination to stand firm rather than to hide away or escape? Cepero writes, “Such courage to face our fears will not come to us because we are brave, but because we know we are loved. … Only by allowing God’s love to meet us at the point of our greatest fear will we move from being people of  fear to being people of faith.”

It is the perfect love of God that casts out fear. We can only hope to be a people who remain calm and compassionate, not driven by fear in a culture of fear, if we are a people who know that we are loved. If we are a people who know that we are loved, then we can live out of that love into a life of faith, a life of faithfulness, a life of selfless service to others, a life that proclaims the good news of Jesus and bears witness to the coming Kingdom. Again, Cepero writes, “At the intersection of our deepest fear and greatest desire, God waits for us with the gift of Presence, the hope of grace.” As they walk along to Jerusalem, Jesus is present with the disciples and the followers at the intersection of their greatest fears and their greatest desires. And so Jesus does not call us to face our fears alone. He calls us only to go where he has already gone with the assurance that he remains there with us and of life after death. For Jesus concludes, “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence.

Almighty God,

through your Word you called all things into being.

In your Word made flesh, you came to live among us,

sympathize with us in our weaknesses,

and to become the servant of all.

By your Spirit join us to the Risen Christ,

that we may seek not to be first,

 but to give our lives in service to our neighbors

            and to your kingdom.

In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.



[1] Helen Cepero, “Mining Below the Surface: Discerning the Gift of Presence,” Conversations: A Forum of Authentic Transformation, 6:2 (Fall/Winter 2008), pg. 51.

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October 14, 2018 Guest preacher
(No online sermon this week.) There is no audio for this sermon.
October 7, 2018 Guest preacher
(No online sermon this week.) There is no audio for this sermon.
September 30, 2018 In My Name
(Mark 9:38-41) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] What is your favorite color? Well what if that were the only color in the world. What if everything were red? [Pulls out a picture of a butterfly with everything colored red] Or what if everything were blue? [Blue butterfly] or Green? What would you think of a world in which there was only one color? That would be kind of boring wouldn’t it? Isn’t it so much better that God made the world with so many different colors? [picture of butterfly with many colors] 

This morning we are celebrating that God made human beings with all kinds of differences. We have different color hair, different color eyes and different color skin. Human beings also don’t live all in the same place or do things the same way. We live in different countries. We speak different languages. We wear different styles of clothing. And that is part of what makes human beings so beautiful.

Now I know that all of you were born here in the United States. But I think that you all have one or two parents or one or more grandparents who were born in another country. Is that true? Where were they born? Well that is part of what makes you each beautiful. God made us all different but yet we are all the same in at least one way. We are all God’s children. And he loves no matter where we come from or what we look like or what language we speak. [End Children’s Sermon]  

* * * * * * * * * *

We live in divided times. There are many people who are waiting in lines for days at the borders of the United States hoping for a chance to seek asylum here. Others wait in their homes for visa applications to come through, worried that some minor mistake will cause their application to be thrown out. They hear many in this country saying, “You are not one of us.” Many women, particularly those who have survived abuse, watched the Senate judiciary committee hearings on Judge Kavanaugh this week, and they heard a room full of white men saying, “You are not one of us.” When African Americans watch as yet another police officer is acquitted after shooting a young black man to death, they hear America saying, “You are not one of us.” We are divided – Republicans and Democrats; White and Black; Mexican and American. There are so many ways we say to each other, “You are not one of us.”

In such a time gathering together on a Sunday morning to celebrate our cultural and ethnic diversity is a political act. It is a political act to celebrate the different ways we grew up, the different foods we eat, the different clothes we wear, and the different languages we speak. It is a political act to recognize cultural and ethnic and national differences and say “this is us,” instead of “You are not one of us.” These differences don’t divide us. In fact, we are united not just in spite of these differences but in and through these differences. A unity that does not unite things that are different is no unity. It is at best conformity and at worst forced uniformity. We thus celebrate our unity by celebrating our diversity. This is a political act when many try to protect unity by pointing at others and saying, “You are not one of us.”

There is a danger, however, of such a celebration becoming merely political. We could celebrate our differences in order to demonstrate to the rest of society that we are not like those other people. We are not like those who fear immigrants and refugees. We are not like those who approve of policies that intimidate asylum seekers or policies that separate children from their parents. We are not like those who fear the watering down of some shared American culture, meaning some European, white American culture. We could celebrate diversity as a means of saying that others are “not one of us.” Or we could celebrate our differences by conforming to a bland tolerance which papers over deeper cultural differences. We could conform to the ideology of tolerance that is so common in our society today. The danger of becoming merely political is that we could become just another voice in the divided politics of our day and the diversity we celebrate will only be skin deep. 

Our celebration, however, is not merely political for we celebrate these differences because we worship a God who loves diversity. We worship a God who is so good and so great and so far above us that he can create an infinite variety and still call all things he created, “good.” Our celebration is not merely political because it is theological. It is a witness to the nature of our God and the nature of God’s kingdom. It is a witness to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We celebrate our diversity in the unity of the name of Jesus.

Now, you may be wondering what our text has to do with ethnic and cultural differences. Or how it is in any way political. Well, I will admit that our gospel text does not speak directly to ethnic or cultural differences, but if we take it in its context in Mark’s gospel, it does shed some light on our celebration today, and it is definitely political.

So first, how is our text political? If you remember from last week, Jesus took his disciples to the region around Caesarea Philippi, a city built by Herod the Great’s son, Herod Philip and dedicated to Caesar, the Roman Emperor. At Caesarea Philippi Jesus finally admitted to his disciples that he was Israel’s Messiah, the Christ, the anointed Son of David, that is, the rightful King of the Jews. This was a highly charged political statement. It would be as if Jesus stood at the Lincoln monument in DC and called upon people to follow him as the President of the United States instead of President Trump. To claim to be the King of the Jews was treasonous against the Emperor of Rome and so it could get you crucified.

We saw over the last two weeks how Jesus, in fact, predicted that as the Messiah he would be crucified. If you turn in your bibles to Mark 10:32 you see that Jesus again predicts his crucifixion for a third time. Mark thus sets of this whole section of his gospel by these three predictions. Notice, then, that after the third prediction the disciples fail again to understand the nature of Jesus’ mission. James and John come to Jesus asking to be put at his right and left when he comes into power, that is, after Jesus comes into political power. But Jesus says, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (10:42-44).

This whole section, then is surrounded by explicitly political texts. All that which Jesus says and does, then, as he tries to teach the disciples what it means that he is the Messiah is politically charged. The kingdom Jesus announces is a kingdom that challenges all human kingdoms.  And if you are not convinced, then notice how Jesus next enters Jerusalem in such a way to spur the crowds to hail him as the one who brings the “Kingdom of our father David.”

Our text speaks into this politically charged context because it is all about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, the Messiah. In the context of the day, it is therefore all about what it means to be a “righteous Jew” over against the gentiles and other “unrighteous Jews.” You see John is so conditioned by his environment that he assumes the religious paradigm of his day. Throughout the gospel Jesus has been confronting the Pharisees on their exclusive and nationalistic form of Judaism. The Pharisees were all about determining who was truly righteous. They believed that God’s Messiah would come and save his people, but only the truly righteous would be counted as God’s people. Those who were not truly righteous, like sinners and tax collectors, would be left behind. Moreover, the Messiah would not only come to save God’s righteous people but to bring judgment on the enemies of God’s righteous people – the Gentiles and the Romans.

John is still operating within this same nationalistic paradigm. It is a different formula -following Jesus is the key rather than following all the rules that the Pharisees follow – but it is the same paradigm. He is still concerned with figuring out who is in and who is out. Who is “righteous” and who is not. “Teacher,” John says, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” But Jesus says, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

Jesus lets John know that he operates by a different paradigm. His kingdom rises above human nationalism and is open to all – Jew and Gentile, sinner and saint, male and female. This is because Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who has come to fulfill the role of Israel to be a blessing to the nations. Jesus is the Son of God, the one who created all humanity and who sent Jesus into the world so that all might be reconciled to God once again. All the petty differences and distinctions and boundaries humans create to separate one from another, so that we can say that “he is not one of us,” are cast aside by this Messiah. Instead, he calls all people to put their trust, their allegiance in him. To call him Lord instead of any other person or ideology. And he sets the bar pretty low: “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

This text is political because it calls us to look above our own political horizon to the one true Lord of heaven and earth. But to do that means to operate on a wholly different paradigm. Mark connects this scene to the previous through the repetition of the words “in my name.” Last week we saw that after Jesus’ second prediction of his crucifixion the disciples argue about who is the greatest, who is the closest to Jesus, and so in their paradigm, who is the most righteous. But Jesus teaches them that in his kingdom greatness and righteousness are defined by serving. “Anyone who wants to be first must be very last, and the servant of all.” Jesus then embraces a child and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.” Jesus’ kingdom is about including those whom this world deems unimportant, those whom this world casts aside, those of whom we say they are “not one of us.” By looking to the Lord of heaven and earth  we can embrace all whom he has made.

But this is not the bland tolerance of today’s society. This is not a papering over of major differences in order to form a semblance of unity. For this unity comes “in the name of Jesus.” Jesus says, “no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus says this in the context of John wanting to exclude others, of John operating within the context of the exclusive nationalistic political and religious paradigm of his day. But in Matthew 12:30, when the Pharisees charge Jesus of casting out demons by the power of demons, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

Jesus says the exact opposite thing but they point to the same truth, they point to the inclusiveness of the kingdom of God, because the contexts are different. When John wants to exclude others, Jesus says, “No, whoever is not against us is for us. My kingdom is about inclusion.” But when the Pharisees say Jesus is of the devil, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” There is a way, in others words, of setting yourself outside of Jesus’ inclusive Kingdom – by opposing it. “Whoever does not gather with me” Jesus says, “scatters.”

The failure of today’s ideology of tolerance is that it is incapable of making any real judgements. This ideology preaches that all people are to be accepted regardless of any differences. But it quickly falls apart when it faces deep cultural differences. This ideology bumbles and blusters, for instance, when faced with radically fundamentalist Muslim societies and their treatment of women. Should we truly tolerate a culture that prevents the education of women, let alone the ability for women to even function normally in public? Should we tolerate cultures that practice polygamy? I could mention other cultural practices that those who preach this bland tolerance find abhorrent, but I will spare you the details.

This ideology of tolerance falls apart because it has cut itself off from the transcendent. It is a merely human, a merely political ideology and so it has no basis over and above humanity upon which to base its judgements. Ultimately it becomes, like all human ideologies, an ideology of power. What can and can’t be tolerated is determined by whoever shouts the loudest and longest. And so you get the Anarchists facing off against the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, WV.

But we celebrate diversity in the unity of the name of Jesus. Jesus became human so that humanity itself could be remade in the image of God. Jesus acts as the Messiah, the King of the Jews by recognizing the inherent worth of every human he encounters. In his name we recognize that all humans are made in the image of God and are meant to be remade in the image of Christ. We can therefore make judgments. On the one hand we know that behavior and practices and political policies that demean others, which treat others as less than human, will not be tolerated in the Kingdom of God. Such behavior scatters people rather than gathers them. It exploits them rather than protects them. It discards them rather than cherishes them. It is behavior that cannot be done in the name of Jesus.

On the other hand, those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus, deny themselves and take up their cross. Instead of playing the political power games of the kingdoms of this world, we seek to be last and servant of all. Instead of spending our time determining who is in and who is out, we seek out the lost, bind up the broken hearted, and give strength to the weary. In so doing we proclaim the image of God in each and every human being. We can thus celebrate our diversity in the unity of the name of Jesus. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Silence.)

Bless your church throughout the world by your Holy Spirit,

draw the scattered flock of Christ into a visible unity,

and make your church a sign of hope to our divided world.

Grant that we who bear your Son’s name

may be instruments of your peace,

gathering in the lost and the excluded,

bringing peace to our homes, our communities,

our nation, and our world. Amen.

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September 23, 2018 The Path to Greatness
(Mark 9:30-37) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Have you ever argued with your friends about who was better than the others? Have you ever told someone you were smarter than they were? Or maybe you bragged about how well you play the piano. Or maybe you liked to show off your new dress or your new shoes to someone. Maybe you teased someone because you could run faster than they could. For some reason it makes us feel good when are better than others. And we all feel that way sometimes.

Even the disciples felt that way sometimes. One day they were walking down the road and they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest. And so Jesus told them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last and servant of all.”

I wonder what Jesus meant by that. To be the best, do you have to be the worst? Or maybe he just meant that to be the best in his kingdom means not caring if you are the best. It makes me think of my nephew. Last year he joined the cross country team in high school. Cross country is where you run a really long race against 30 or 40 other kids. Well he was running in a race one time when he came upon another boy who had stopped running. He had ran so hard he didn’t think he could go on anymore. Well, my nephew could have kept running. He could have kept on going and felt good about himself because there was one more runner that he had beat. But he didn’t. He stopped, turned around and said to the boy, “Come on, you can do it. I will run with you.” And even though it took him longer to finish the race, my nephew ran with the other boy just to help him finish the race.

I don’t know if my nephew came in last place or not, but he for sure didn’t come in first place. He didn’t even beat his own time, but I think Jesus would have awarded him first place because he was a servant to the other boy. [End Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

For years the editors of Chimes, the student newspaper at Calvin College, published a spoof edition once a year. Sometimes the spoof would be just like another edition of the newspaper. At other times they would spoof different publications. One year they published The Bananer, a spoof of the denomination’s magazine, The Banner. When Roxann and I were at Calvin, they published a spoof edition of the Academic Course Catalogue. In it they note that anyone from the community could audit a course for $15, a 96% reduction of the cost of tuition. “This means,” they wrote, “that over the course of a four-year period, students pay $480 for the knowledge and learning and $23,728 for the credit.”

I don’t suppose I need to tell a room half full of graduate students and professors that our education system in the United States values the practical and pragmatic aspects of education over and above the actual education. What matters is not what a student learns and how their understanding of the world and others is expanded by that knowledge, but only if students can get a good paying job at the end of the day. What matters is not expanding our knowledge of the universe, but if our knowledge can lead to new and profitable innovations in the research park.

We tend to do something similar with Jesus. We tend to think that what really matters when it comes to Jesus is that he died on the cross to save our sins. That is the degree, the document, the deed that determines our future. Faith in Jesus is pragmatic. We believe in order to be saved. We sometimes look upon his life and ministry as if it were all just preliminary stuff he had to go through in order to get to the cross. Sure, maybe his life and ministry are examples for us. We too must be nice to others. We too should help out those who are poor and sick. We too should preach the good news that Jesus died on the cross to save us. Sure, we can learn a thing or two about how God wants us to behave from looking at Jesus, but what is most important is that we are forgiven of our sins because he died on the cross. What is most important is that we have everlasting life, we are redeemed, we are saved by the cross.

Last week I hope we got a sense that the cross goes a bit deeper than that. Last week I hope we got a sense that the cross was more than just a transaction in which an innocent Jesus became the sacrificial lamb in order to pay the price for our sins. Last week we saw that Jesus took on the role of the Suffering Servant from the book of Isaiah. The Suffering Servant is a figure in the second half of Isaiah who undergoes God’s punishment of Israel with and for Israel. In the midst of exile, the Suffering Servant remains faithful and obedient to God. He keeps trusting in God even as Jerusalem lies in ruins and God’s people live as exiles in a foreign land. Through the Suffering Servant, then, God comes to his people to give them words of comfort and hope in the midst of their exile.

Jesus takes on the role of the Suffering Servant not just to explain what he is doing in the event of the cross, but to demonstrate his way of being with Israel throughout his life. Mark highlights the fact that Israel remains in a kind of exile during Jesus’ day right from the beginning of the gospel. Israel remains under the rule of the pagan Romans, but John the Baptist comes and preaches at the river Jordan, at the place where Israel first crossed over into the land of Canaan under Joshua, and supposedly where the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon. Mark characterizes John’s ministry as the prophet who announces the end of Israel’s exile: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way [of return] – a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” Like the Suffering Servant, Jesus’ ministry is a ministry to a people in exile. It is therefore a ministry of faithful obedience and trust in God in the midst of that exile.

The opening line of Mark’s gospel states, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The word gospel means “good news,” but it was often used with regard to royal propaganda. It meant “the official decree of good news.” Mark’s “official decree of good news” is that Jesus is the Christ, the Jewish Messiah. The good news is that the King of Israel has returned. The line of David is about to be restored. That means that the exile is soon to be over.

This, however, sets Jesus in immediate opposition with Caesar, the emperor of Rome. Only Caesar could appoint someone as King over the Jews, and he had, his own puppet, Herod. But just to drive the point home, Mark adds that Jesus is “the Son of God,” for Caesar himself was claimed to be and was worshipped as “the son of god.” It is no surprise then that the nationalistic wing of the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees, soon team up with those leaders who colluded with the Romans, the Herodians. In chapter 3:6 Mark reports, “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”

Mark announces right from the beginning that Jesus is the Christ, but with regard to the characters in the gospel, everyone wonders who he is. They ask “Who is this?” (4:41) “What is this? A new teaching and with authority?” (2:27) “Why does this fellow talk like that [and claim to forgive sins]? (2:7) “Where did this man get these things? … Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” Everyone wonders if Jesus is the Messiah. People report to Herod and the disciples tell Jesus that some think he is John the Baptist, others Elijah, and others one of the prophets. Finally Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter affirms, “You are the Christ.”

Of course everyone is asking this question because Jesus is not living up to the expectations of being the Jewish Messiah. He is not a warrior like King David. He has no army. He has not started a rebellion. Instead he has welcomed sinners and tax collectors into his company. He has healed the blind and the lame. He has cast out demons and fed the hungry. He has ministered to both Jew and Gentile. The first half of the gospel answers the question of Jesus identity, but with a twist. He is the Jewish Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God, who has come to redeem God’s people from exile, but God’s people includes the Gentiles, and sinners, and tax-collectors, and maybe even the Pharisees.   Jesus is the Messiah, but he redefines what it means to be the Messiah.

Let me suggest that the second half of Mark’s gospel turns on the question of how Jesus will bring both Jews and Gentiles out of exile. Jesus redefines how the Messiah will fulfill his mission. Last week we read that after Peter proclaimed that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus began to tell disciples plainly that he must go up to Jerusalem to be betrayed into the hands of the Romans, killed, and be raised on the third day. This morning we read how he told them the same thing a second time. And Jesus tells the disciples this again a third time in 10:32. Now anytime something happens three times in a biblical story we should know it is significant. Jesus, however, doesn’t just tell his disciples about the coming cross to give them advance warning. He tells them that he is going to Jerusalem to be killed in order to show them that this is his way of being with God’s people. This is his way of completing his mission. And so it must be their way of being with others if they wish to follow him. He said it plainly in last week’s passage: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (8:34)

After each of the next two times Jesus predicts his death, he teaches his disciples what the cross means for how they are to be shaped by the cross as they live in the world. In our lesson today the disciples argue about which of them was the greatest. IN verse 35 Jesus sits them down and says, “‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and servant of all.’ He then took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.’”

The disciples argue about who is on the top of the totem pole, but they are not simply concerned about which individual is better than all the others. They are concerned about a game of power. Each one wants to make sure he gets the respect and honor he deserves. Some of us were talking the other day about how honor and respect and therefore power is determined by age within many Asian societies. In order to relate to someone properly, you have to know if they are older or younger than you. And, generally speaking, the leader of any group must be someone who is among the oldest in the group.

In Jesus’ day society ran according to a host of patron-client relationships. People with power and prestige handed out favors to those with less power and prestige in return for loyalty and services. The disciples are arguing about where each of them fits within the social ranking of the group. Who deserves to be honored and served by the others, and which one has the power and prestige to hand out favors. My guess is they were arguing about who was closest to Jesus. Should Thomas buddy up to Peter or John in order to curry favor with Jesus?

Jesus, however, turns this system on its head. He says the greatest in the kingdom of God is not the one who stands above others and hands out favors. The greatest is not the one who lends you an air of respectability and social standing. No, the greatest is the last person, the one at the bottom of the social ranking. The greatest is the one who serves everyone and has no power or prestige to hand out favors. If the disciples were to have a dinner party, they would want to invite the most respected people in their community so that they would be seen to be on their social level. Their social ranking would increase even more if they then received an invitation in return to attend a party given by one of these social elites. But Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”  If you want to curry my favor, if you want to get close to me, invite someone to your party with no social standing. Invite someone to your party who is powerless and cannot pay you back.

Our gospel lesson this morning begins with Jesus telling his disciples that the way he is going to fulfill his mission is to give up his power. He is going to submit to the powers of the religious leaders, the powers of Rome, and even the power of death. He does so because sin has to do with power. We sin when we exert our own power over against others. We sin when we seek to trust in our own power instead of in God. But Jesus overcomes sin by submitting to its power and dying so that he can be raised again on the third day. We are saved by the cross because through it Jesus takes on the guilt of our sin and also because Jesus overcomes the power of sin. Jesus plays be the rules of the kingdom rather than by the rules of the world.

Jesus took on the guilt of our sin and overcame the power of sin so that we might come out of exile and back into communion with God. But the world is in many ways still living in exile from God. The world still functions as though being the best and the greatest is what really matters. Nations still struggle to make themselves great. CEO’s run their companies as though profit and beating the competition takes precedent over caring for the environment, paying workers a living wage, and providing the benefits people need for a full life. And individuals continue to be imprisoned by the idols of success and money.

But Jesus frees us from all the power games we are tempted to play in our lives. He frees us from wondering, like the disciples, who among us is the greatest, or who among us is the richest, or who among us is the most brilliant. But he not only frees us from those things, he frees us to live freely for others. Instead of spending our time and energy vying for power and seeking the favor of those who have more power, Jesus invites us to live our lives shaped by his cross. He invites us to use the power we have to serve others. He invites us to use the power we have for the sake of the powerless. He invites us to demonstrate our trust and obedience and hope in the power of God rather than in the powers of this world. We thus come alongside those who have been defeated, or oppressed, or given up in the face of the power games of this world. Like my nephew we stop and run a different race. We walk along with the least of these and so give them comfort and hope as we point them to the cross of Christ. Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him for he took up his cross and gave up his power for us.

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September 16, 2018 Why do bad things happen to mediocre people?
(Isaiah 50; Mark 8:27-38) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] So one of the reasons we come to church is to be with God, right? Well, if God is in heaven, maybe we could get closer to God if we got a little bit higher. [steps up a step ladder] Do you think I am closer to God now? Well, what if I went a little higher? Am I closer to God now? No, because God is already here, isn’t he. We can’t do anything to get closer to make ourselves closer to God because he is already here.

We can’t make ourselves closer to God, but sometimes we think we can do things to make God love us. Sometimes we think that if we obey all God’s commands, that God will love us more. It is sort of like stepping up on a ladder trying to get closer to God. [Steps up] And then we think if we go to church every Sunday and pray every day, God will love us more [steps up]. We sometimes think that we have to make God love us.

But the Apostle Paul said, “God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In fact God loved us before we could even do anything. He loved us when we were just little babies. We can’t do anything to make God love us because he loves us already. [End Children’s Sermon]

One day Eleanor Shellstrop wakes up in a waiting room. She is sitting on a couch facing a wall with the message “Welcome! Everything is fine.” She is invited into an office by a gentleman named Michael who sits her down and proceeds to tell her that she has died but that she is in the “Good Place.” Eleanor, however, realizes immediately that she is not supposed to be in the paradise that is the Good Place. While everyone else talks of all the amazingly good things they did on earth, like teach moral philosophy, or open an orphanage in Haiti, she was and remains a completely self-absorbed person. She only acts in her own interest and she refuses to take responsibility or to be responsible for anything.

The show, “The Good Place,” depicts the Good Place as if it were a paradise produced by a computer program designed by Michael, who is called the Architect. The plot revolves around the fact that after Eleanor show up, things start malfunctioning and the Good Place begins to fall apart. Eleanor soon realizes that she is the virus that is causing the whole system to crash. She tries to find a way to fix things without having to reveal that she is not supposed to be there. When a solution presents itself but then falls through she says, “Darn! I was almost handed the perfect solution to all my problems without having to work for it at all, and now it’s gone. Why do bad things always happen to mediocre people?”[1]

It is assumed in the Good Place that we humans merit the judgements we receive. The people who are in the Good Place have all earned their place. Likewise, all the people in the “Bad Place” deserve to be there. No matter how often we preachers preach about the grace of God, this is probably our default mode of thinking. We also believe that God’s judgements reflect what we merit.

Our passage from Isaiah seems to uphold this way of thinking:

Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away? Or to which of my creditors did I sell you? Because of your sins you were sold; because of your transgressions your mother was sent away. (Isaiah 50:12)

The Israelites have received what they deserve. They sinned and so were sent away into exile. They turned away from God, so God turned away from them.

I have been making the case over the past several weeks that our God, the God, is a humble God. I have noted how humility is an essential aspect of the Trinity which exists- Father, Son and Holy Spirit - as a community of love and mutual submission. Two weeks ago we saw how God uses his power in a humble way, not over against others, but for and with them. But when it comes to the judgements of God, when Israel is sent into exile, when God punishes people, is he not using his power over against them? How can I argue that God is a humble God when God seems to be so capricious in his judgment of Israel and of the nations?

Part of the problem is that when we assume that we should merit what we receive, that we should earn our rewards and our punishments, then God can seem to be a capricious, unmerciful, and arrogant judge. We have the same attitude as Eleanor and ask, “Why do bad things happen to mediocre people?” We think that we can’t possibly be bad enough to deserve God’s judgment. We assume that we are at least mediocre, that we at least have been good enough to deserve entry into “The Good Place,” and to receive God’s blessings. So if bad things happen to us, we tend to feel as though we are under God’s judgment, but then we go back on the first premise; we cannot believe that we are judged according to our merit. God must be capricious and arrogant. We conclude that God is a judgmental God, a God who acts over against us, not for and with us. God appears arrogant rather than humble.

We see a different picture of God, however, if we look more closely at our lesson from Isaiah. The first mistake people often make when looking at God’s judgments in the Bible is that they tend to look at God’s judgments in isolation. They forget the larger story. Isaiah, however, reminds us of the larger story right from the beginning. “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away?” he asks. The larger story is that God’s judgement doesn’t come out of the blue but in the context of a relationship with Israel. Israel was God’s chosen people, his bride, with whom he made a covenant of love. God’s relationship with Israel begins not with not God being over against them, but with God acting for and with them. God’s judgement of Israel, first of all, takes place in the context of God’s love for Israel.

This should remind us of why God made his covenant with Israel. In the first place, God entered into this special relationship with Israel not because Israel was the greatest nation, or the most righteous nation, or even for the sake of Israel. God chose Israel for the sake of all the nations, so that through Israel God could bring all the nations to him and bless them. All of God’s actions with Israel, both his saving actions and his judgements, are actions that are for and with humanity. God came to dwell in the temple of Israel in order to be with all of humanity. God’s judgements upon Israel therefore come after his being for and with Israel in order to be for and with humanity. So, second, the purpose of God’s judgements over Israel is so that the nations might learn from Israel’s mistakes.

Third, we should note that Isaiah points out that God has sent Israel into exile not only for her sins, not only because she merits punishment through disobedience, but also because she has failed to trust in God. In verse 2 God says, “When I came, why was there no one? When I called, why was there no one to answer? Was my arm too short to deliver you? Do I lack the strength to rescue you?” God came to Israel, God called to Israel to be with and for her, to rescue her and deliver her. But they did not receive God. They did not trust God. They did not answer.

This leads us to the forth thing we must note about God’s judgments: they are natural consequences of our actions and our failure to trust. Verse 11 serves as a summary or conclusion to verses 1-3, “But now, all you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires.” If we trust in ourselves rather than God, we will walk by the light of our own fires. This will lead us away from God and into paths of disobedience. And moving away from God, being away from God, is the essence of God’s judgement against someone. We can’t make ourselves closer to God, or for God love us, but we can ignore his presence and turn away from him and his ways. And so God punishes Israel by sending her into exile. Such judgment is indeed merited by one’s failure to trust in God and by one’s disobedience. If we choose to walk away from God, God may allow us to do so.

But, fifth, such judgment comes only after God’s many attempts to bring us back to him. The nation of Israel, that is the northern 10 tribes, was sent into exile only after hundreds and hundreds of years of idolatry, injustice and of trusting in the power of other nations rather than God. The nation of Judah, the southern 2 tribes, was also sent into exile after seeing what happened to Israel just a few generations later for the same things. Moreover, God’s judgments upon Israel and Judah only come after years and years of God’s patience and long-suffering. Both are sent into exile after dozens of prophets came to them to call them back to God. “When I came, why was there no one? When I called, why was there no answer?”

God’s judgments are not the judgements of a capricious, arrogant, power-hungry god. They are the natural results of our failure to trust in and obey God, and they come in the context of and after many attempts by God for him to be with us and for us. But we prefer to think that we are good enough on our own. We continue to think that mediocre gets us a passing grade. We blind ourselves to the depths of our rebellion and we refuse to see that any path that depends upon us rather than upon God leads us away from God.

But even in the midst of God’s judgment, God seeks to meet us with his grace. Chapter 50 of Isaiah is divided into three parts. The first part, verses 1-3, deals with Judah’s disobedience as we have seen. The second part, verse 5-9, turns to this figure called the Suffering Servant who keeps making appearances in the second half of Isaiah. The third part, verses 10 and 11, provide summaries or a conclusion to each section, verse 10 summarizes 4-9, and 11 summarizes 1-3.

Now Christians immediately assume that the Suffering Servant is Jesus. It is true that Jesus lays claim to this figure, but before we turn to Jesus, we ought to see how and who the Suffering Servant is in the context of Isaiah.  In chapter 42 the Servant is introduced and he seems to be an individual: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold … I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” But in chapter 49 the Servant seems to be the nation of Israel, “He said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.’” Isaiah thus speaks of Israel, or maybe a part of Israel, maybe a faithful remnant of Israel, as a single person, just as the prophets often personify unfaithful Israel as an unfaithful wife.

In our text we see the continued faithfulness of this Servant. The Servant seems to be a faithful remnant of Israel through whom God continues to be with his people even in the midst of judgment. I would give the Hebrew Bible, which was largely put together and edited during Israel’s exile as evidence of such a faithful remnant. This results in three more ways in which God’s judgments prove to be the acts not of an arrogant and capricious God, but of a loving, merciful, and humble God. First, in contrast to unfaithful Israel, the Servant is given “a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.” The Servant listens to God. He is teachable. He is obedient, and so through the Servant God’s words of comfort can come to God’s people.

Second, unlike unfaithful Israel, the Servant continues to trust in God. He says in verse 7, “Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near.” In the midst of Israel’s exile, the Suffering Servant offers an example of one who continues to trust in God. And so the Suffering Servant offers true hope. In verse 10, the summary, we read, “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of his servant? Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on their God.”  Through the Servant Israel learns that they can trust God even in the midst of God’s judgment, even as they live in exile.

Third, the Servant endures the judgment of God for the sake of others. The Servant lives in solidarity with unfaithful Israel and so endures the abuse that is meted out by Israel’s pagan captors, the Babylonians. “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard.” The vicarious nature of this suffering comes to the fore in chapter 53:4, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” The Servant endures the punishment Israel deserves for the sake of Israel, but in this way also fulfills the calling of Israel. “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant,” God says in 49:6, “to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

In each of these three ways, God continues to act through the Servant in order to act with and for his people and thus all humanity even in the midst of the judgment of Israel’s exile. Through the Servant God speaks words of comfort and encourages his people to return to obedience and to trust. Through the Servant God leads Israel back to her true vocation. God chooses the Servant to bring his salvation not only to Israel but to all the nations. God works through the Servant to demonstrate that there is yet salvation for his people and for all humanity. Judgment is not the end of the story.

In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus thus lays claim to the role of the Suffering Servant. Peter confesses him to be the Christ, by which he means that Jesus is the King of Israel who has returned to bring God’s salvation to Israel and God’s judgment upon the Romans. But Jesus responds by saying that God will not work over against the Romans through him. Rather, he says he must go up to Jerusalem to be betrayed by the religious leaders into the hands of the Romans, that he will be killed, but that he will rise again after the third day. Jesus takes on the role of the Suffering Servant who takes upon himself God’s judgment of Rome, of all the nations, and of unfaithful Israel. But Jesus remains obedient to God and trusting in God even through death so that he might bring Israel and all the nations to God’s salvation.



[1] “The Eternal Shriek.” The Good Place, season 1, episode 7, NBC, October 20, 2016.

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September 9, 2018 Guest preacher
(No online sermon this week.) There is no audio for this sermon.
September 2, 2018 The Humble God: Divine Power
(Deuteronomy 4:4-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon]

What is your favorite part church? One of my favorite parts of church is after the service when we get to eat snacks. Do you like that part of church? Well one of my favorite snacks is chocolate brownies. Do you know how to make brownies? Well, all you do it add ¼ cup of water, a ½ cup of oil and an egg to some brownie mix and then bake it at 325 for 45 minutes.

So I just told you how to make brownies. Do you think you could go home and do that? No? Maybe? With some help? Well what if we were to make brownies together right now? … So Miss Roxann is going to put that in the oven in the kitchen and she has my permission to get up during the service, even if it is during my sermon, to check and see if they are done, and then we will have some nice warm brownies after the service.

We have been talking the last few weeks about how God made us to be like him.  Jesus came to save us from our sins so that we really could be like God. But God doesn’t just tell us how to be like him, he wants us to become like him by acting like him, by doing things. It is sort of like making brownies. If someone just tells you how to do it, you have an idea of how to do it. But it isn’t until you actually try to make brownies that you actually learn to do it. The Apostle James, he was Jesus’ brother, wrote, “Do not merely listen to the word [of God]. … Do what it says.”

[End of children’s sermon]

Every parent wants for their child to be like them, at least in some ways. I often make blueberry pancakes on Saturday mornings, and when I do, it reminds me of my dad. He made blueberry pancakes every Saturday morning. When my son Evan was young, maybe 6 or 7, he would help me make the pizza dough for the pizza we have every Sunday night. I was tickled that he wanted to help me. For me it seemed like his wanting to help me make the pizza dough was his way of showing that he wanted to be like me. I had hopes that by 8 years old he would be able to mix and knead the dough and then roll it out all by himself. Unfortunately, Evan soon lost interest and I went back to making the pizza dough on my own.

Making pancakes and pizza dough are rather trivial things. What parents really desire is that their children become like them in what they value, in their morals and in who and what they worship. That is what really matters to us, and that is what really matters to God, our heavenly Father.

In our gospel lesson this morning Jesus gets into an argument with the Pharisees over how it is that God wants his children, the Israelites, to be like him. The Pharisees sort of took Leviticus 11:45 as their motto for life: “I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.”

To be holy means to be set apart and marked off as special. Leviticus has rule after rule about how the Israelites and especially priests and those who served in the temple were supposed to keep themselves clean and ritually pure. These laws specify which animals are clean and can be eaten, and which are unclean. They speak about how various things like touching dead person or bleeding or various skin diseases can make a person unclean. These cleanliness laws and “holiness codes,” as they are called, reminded the people that God was holy, set apart, and that they, the Israelites had been called and set apart from all the other nations by God. They were his chosen people.

The Pharisees took all this to heart. They believed that all Israelites should strictly follow not only the cleanliness laws that were meant for all the Israelites, but also the more strict laws that were meant for the priests and Levites. One could say that the Pharisees came up with the idea of the priesthood of all believers. But just to be sure that they were truly holy and set apart, they added an oral tradition, the traditions of the elders, which they accuse Jesus’ disciples of not following.

Now Jesus’ response is interesting. He doesn’t just say, “Your traditions are not actually commanded by God in the scriptures. They are not biblical, so no one has to follow them if they don’t want to.” No. Instead he uses this as an opportunity to teach about the true nature of holiness.

One of the problems that has plagued Christianity and Judaism over the centuries is a distorted understanding of holiness. The Pharisees centered their theology and their practice around the fact that Israel was God’s chosen people. They sought to live up to God’s grace and mercy and love for his people by following God’s laws as best they could and by encouraging their fellow Israelites to do the same. The problem, however, was that they saw that the goal of the law was to set them apart from the Gentiles, from the “unclean,” and from “sinners” and the unrighteous. Their focus, then, was not on becoming like God in how God acted, but in how God was set apart.

The first problem with this is that it is not the law or following the law that makes someone holy. It is God who sets us apart and makes us holy. God gives us the law so that we can then learn to live in God’s ways. The law reminds us of our holiness and leads us into righteous, just and moral living. By following the law in order to make themselves holy or to maintain their separateness, the Pharisees forgot about the real importance of morality, that morality is key to what it means to be holy.

This leads to the second problem. In verses 9 through 13 Jesus points out how the Pharisees concern for holiness and maintaining purity has blinded them to justice and compassion. He rebukes them because according to their code if someone dedicates some money, or maybe the produce from a certain field to the temple, then that can never be taken back. Even if that persons’ parents become sick or destitute, they cannot use that money to help their parents. “Thus,” says Jesus in verse 13, “You nullify the word of God by your tradition.”

This has plagued Christianity over the centuries as well. When Christians have put too much emphasis on being “chosen” by God and upon holiness, upon remaining separate from the “world,” it has inevitably led to injustice. When we emphasize our own holiness and chosenness, we lose our capacity for compassion. Instead of loving our neighbor and the stranger, we vilify them. When Christians have emphasized our holiness and chosenness, it has led to ideologies that set Christians over against people of other religions and it has set some Christian nations even over against other Christian nations. It has become the basis of nationalism, racist ideologies and White Supremacism. When we view ourselves mainly as set apart and chosen, then others become the enemy and we begin to justify the use of force over against them in the name of maintaining our own purity and advancing “God’s cause.”

God, however, did not set Israel apart and make her holy so that she might be over against the other nations. In our lesson from Deuteronomy God says, “Observe [my commandments] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (4:6). Wisdom and understanding, if you recall, demonstrate the fear of the Lord. They demonstrate that a people lives in God’s ways and thus they reveal the nature and character of God. God chose Israel and set her apart so that God might bless the nations through Israel, so that the other nations might come to know who God was and what his ways are by observing Israel.

The apostle James says the same about the Christian church. In verse 18 he says, “[God] chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” The firstfruits were the first crops harvested each year. They were often sacrificed to God as a thank offering because they symbolized that God had been faithful for another year and they were a guarantee that more was to come. Christians are the firstfruits because by redeeming us, God demonstrates that he has been faithful not just to us, but to all humanity. We are thus set apart as a promise that there is more salvation to come, that God’s salvation is for all humanity.

Jesus enters into this argument with the Pharisees because they view holiness as a way in which God’s people are set apart from the nations, which they think of as over against the nations. But Jesus demonstrates in the following stories that he is not only Israel’s Messiah, but the savior of the nations, the savior of the Gentiles. In the next story he casts out a demon from the daughter of a pagan Gentile. He then heals a deaf and mute Gentile in the Gentile region of the Decapolis. He then feeds a mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles of over 4,000 people in the wilderness. Mark highlights the fact that both the feeding of the 5,000 in chapter 6 and the 4,000 in chapter 8 happen in “desert” places, and thus allude to God giving manna to the Israelites in the wilderness. The point is that God acts to feed both Jew and Gentile. Throughout these chapters Jesus acts as the true Israelite through whom God works to bless both Jew and Gentile. The implication is that to be a disciple of Jesus is to become a vessel of God through whom God acts with and for all of humanity.

This, then, brings us back to Jesus’ first critique of the Pharisees’ understanding of holiness. To be holy is to be morally set apart. James says in verse 27 that true religion is “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” The Pharisees think this means they must be separate from a certain kind of people, but James equates being separate from the world with looking after “orphans and widows in their distress.” It means to seek justice and love mercy. Jesus also teaches in verse 15 that to be holy means that to be separate from immoral activity. “What comes out of a person is what defiles them … sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” Holiness is therefore about being moral. True religion and holiness is following God’s ways so that others see how good and just and loving and merciful God is. True religion is acting like God in justice and compassion with and for others rather over and against them.

Last week I argued that God is a humble God because he acts not against other but for others and with others. The notion of being God’s chosen, of being the firstfruits, presents us with a fourth type of power: God acts through others. God demonstrates his humility by first investing all humanity with authority and responsibility by making us in his image. He then invests Israel with the responsibility of being a priestly nation through whom he might bless the nations. He then invests the church with the responsibility of being the firstfruits. We are thus called to be set apart from the world in that we act with the same love and compassion that God has towards the world. James calls us not only to listen to the word of God, but to do it. And that means to look after orphans and widows, to seek justice for the poor and the oppressed, to welcome the stranger, and to proclaim in word and deed that Jesus is lord and savior of all people. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence

O God, author and giver of all good things,
plant in our hearts the love of your name;
increase in us true religion;
nourish us with all goodness;
and bring forth in us the fruit of good works;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.

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August 26, 2018 The Humble God: The Life of God, or Real Food
(John 6:55-69) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I would like to do a little experiment with you. So when I am standing here, you can see me, right? And you can hear me, right? Would you say I am with you? How about if I move here? Can you hear me? Am I with you? But what if I move [goes behind a wall]… here. Can you see me? Can you hear me? Yes. Am I with you?

When someone is with us we can usually see them and here them, can’t we? But someone can be with you, at least in some way, even when you can’t see them. Because you could hear my words, I was still with you in a way. Have you ever talked to anyone on the phone? Maybe a grandparent, or an aunt or an uncle? Maybe they were far away, but by talking with them on the phone they were sort of with you for a while weren’t they.

In the gospel of John Jesus teaches that if we believe in him and if we trust in him, he will remain in us and we will remain in him. That means he will be with us always. But we can’t see Jesus, can we? And we can’t even hear Jesus by talking to him over the phone. But there are other ways Jesus remains with us. He gave us his word, the Bible, that we can read. So when we read the Bible we can hear Jesus. We can pray to Jesus and when we pray we can speak to him and we can listen to him in silence as well. And Jesus also promised to send his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, to us. So if we believe and trust in Jesus I want you to remember that Jesus remains with us by his Word, through prayer and by his Holy Spirit. [end children’s sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Two weeks ago I talked about how we were created to be like God. In Christ, therefore, we are being remade in his image to become more and more like God. Last week I argued that our first step towards becoming like God, however, was to recognize that we are not God. We were made to be like God in some ways, but we were not made to be God. To be like God, we, his creatures must submit ourselves to him, honor him, obey him, and worship him. We must fear him.

Our first step to becoming more like God is a step of humility. Many of you know that during my sabbatical I read and wrote about humility. And so, even if you didn’t realize it, this is now my third sermon in series about humility. Last week we examined an important aspect of humility. Humility involves a submission to something or someone. It often involves a submission to someone greater than oneself. A student demonstrates humility by following the instructions of her teacher. Humility can also come in the form of a submission to an ideal or a cause. The President of the United States should act out of humility after swearing to uphold and protect the constitution of the United States of American. The President thus places himself, or one day herself, under the ideals and the regulations of the constitution. We demonstrate humility through our fear of God. We submit ourselves to the person of God and to the ways of God.

Now it is fitting for our first step in becoming more like God to be a step of humility because our God is a humble God. That may sound kind of odd because there are many acclamations in scripture that praise God for his majesty, his might, his great wisdom, his glory. Psalm 8, for example, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. … When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, … What is humankind that you are mindful of them?” Our temptation is that we want to emulate God and become like God in his power and glory. We want that for ourselves. But what if this glorious and mighty God were also a humble God? What if this God also demonstrated a kind of submissiveness?

In our gospel text this morning in verse 55. Jesus says, “my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” A little later in verse 63 he says, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life.” Later in the book Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and even later he says, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (11:25; 14:6).

So who is the life? Jesus says he lives because of the Father, but that the Spirit gives life, and that he himself is the life. How can this be? How can Jesus be the source of life, yet live because of the Father? What lies behind Jesus’ words is what we call the Trinity. Jesus is the life because as he himself says, he abides in the Father and he and the Father are one. The Spirit gives life because the Spirit is the sent by the Father just as the Father sends the Son. Paul talks about the Spirit in various ways, sometimes within the same sentence. He can call the Spirit the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, or just the Spirit. In some ways Father, Son (or Jesus or Christ), and Spirit are interchangeable. They are all God. They are all in some ways One. But yet the very fact that Jesus refers to the Father and the Spirit means that they are in some ways unique. If there were no difference the Father couldn’t send the Son, nor the Son send the Spirit.

From all this we can say that the source of all being is not just one, but one in three, or three in one. The community of the Trinity is at the source of all being. Mutual give and take is at the source of all being. God is a humble God because in the life of the Trinity there is mutual submission. In our text we see that Jesus is submissive to the Father for he is sent by the Father. But there are other places in scripture where we see even the Father subordinating himself to the Son. Throughout the New Testament Jesus is known as “Lord.” “Jesus is Lord,” was the first Christian confession of faith. In Roman ears this meant that Jesus was Lord and not Caesar, but in Jewish ears it mean something different. Jews never say the name of God, Yahweh, but instead call God, Adonai, which means Lord. When Christians call Jesus Lord, they are calling him Yahweh. Commenting on one of these passages biblical scholar Reinhard Feldmeier says that God hands over the name he has held throughout Israel’s history and takes the name Father for himself.[1]

In Philippians 2:6 (pg. 873) we see perhaps the greatest example of this mutual give and take and mutual submission. Jesus although “in nature God” “made himself nothing,” was “made in human likeness,” and remained “obedient even unto death.” “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.” Jesus submitted himself in obedience to the Father, so the Father gives him his own place and his own name so that “every tongue” may “acknowledge Jesus Christ is Lord,” or Yahweh, or God. But Jesus does this “to the glory of the Father.” He gives back the glory he receives. There is mutual submission, mutual give and take, mutual sharing between the Father and the Son

In our passage Jesus is saying that he is the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven because he participates in and is part of the source of life that is Father. But earlier in the passage in verse 40 Jesus says, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.”  Jesus looks to the Father as the source of life. The Father points us to Jesus as the source of life.

Jesus takes up this image of the manna given to the Israelites in the wilderness because of the symbolic meaning of the manna. Yes, food is our source of life in a physical sense. But the Israelites learned by eating the bread from heaven, the manna which was sent by God every day, to trust in God. The source of true life is trust in God. Here Jesus is saying that the true bread from heaven, the true source of life, real food, is trusting in him for he and the Father are one.

But there is more, to eat the bread of heaven, to trust in Jesus is to be invited into a relationship that is like the relationships in the Trinity. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them,” says Jesus.  We live as we exist in this loving and humble relationship with Jesus, just as Jesus lives in a loving and humble relationship within the Trinity. Now of course in this relationship we submit ourselves to Jesus, but Jesus, in a sense, also serves us. He is the one who already submitted himself to death for us, but he continues to serve us as our intercessor before the Father and by promising to abide in us if we abide in him.

And this brings us to a second aspect of humility: how one uses power. Feldmeier argues that there are two kinds of power. “There is the power of the devil, which violently subjects the other person to one’s own will, and there is the power of the rule of God, which understands existence as coexistence and hence acts not against the other but for him and with him.”[2]

I might separate this into three kinds of power – power against, power for, and power with.  And so we see Jesus using power for us and with us in this passage. In verse 51 Jesus says “This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world.” Jesus goes to the cross, but also rises from the dead for the life of the world. He uses his power to defeat death for us. But Jesus didn’t do this just for us. He did this so that he could be with us, and he did this first by taking on our flesh and blood.

If we want to know and experience what it is to abide in Jesus, I think we need to move from an understanding of how God uses power for us to and an understanding that God also uses power with us. Some may think that God mainly uses power against us. Many view God as a mainly judgmental. Our job is to not mess up, to not sin, and to obey all kinds of rules to keep God from getting angry with us. I hope that we all recognize that God’s main stance toward us is one of love and grace and mercy. He is a God who is for us.

And so maybe our prayers are not so much about God’s power against us, but God’s power for us. We turn to God in prayer mainly in terms of intercession. We ask God for his blessings not only for our benefit, but also for the benefit of others.  In turn, if we ask God to do things for us, we feel we have to pledge ourselves to do things for God. We pledge ourselves to obey him. We seek to do his will. We dedicate ourselves to using our gifts and talents in service to God’s kingdom.

That is all well and good, but Jesus says that if we eat the bread of life we will be in him and he in us. How then do we move from knowing that God is for us, to embracing God with us? In my children’s sermon I mentioned God’s word and prayer. Let’s start with prayer.

At the beginning of our service I have been asking you to review your day or your week to notice the places God has blessed you or others and then to give thanks. But the more we notice and give thanks for what God has done for us and others, the more we will notice that God is not just doing things for us, he is present with us. Move then from noticing what God has done to noting how God has been present. Then the more we take note of his presence with us, the more we will begin to realize that he not only wants us to do things for him and for the Kingdom, but with him. Jesus is in us not just to comfort us and make us feel good, but so that we can fully participate in the life of God and in the mission of God. God and Jesus are not satisfied with us doing things for them, they want us to do things and live with them. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.”

But that is not an easy calling. It means that we must, as Jesus says, “eat his flesh and drink his blood.” It means we must give up trying to be our own source of life, our own source of power, our own source of morality. It means we must put our trust solely and fully in him. It means we must fear him. And so we say with many of his disciples in verse 60, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Abiding in Jesus means constantly confronting that part of us that finds this difficult and wants to walk away. We all want and desire to be independent. We all want and desire to determine our lives and our destinies for ourselves. And so in our worship service almost every week, we take time to examine our lives and to admit that there are times and places where we have exerted our own will over against the will of God. We must ask: where have we used our power not for or with others, but violently, through hurtful words or actions, over against others? Where have we acted selfishly? Where have we sought to keep a corner of our lives independent from God? Has it been in how we spend or save our money? Has it been in how we have sought or used power in our relationships with our colleagues? Has it been in how you have treated a friend, or your children, or your parents?

Through our prayer of confession, by confessing our sins and seeking God’s mercy, we come to recognize and confess what Jesus says in verse 63, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life.”  The flesh is that part of us and the world that is opposed to the Kingdom of God and God’s ways. It is that independent streak in us. But when we confess this we confess that Jesus, the Spirit, the Father, that the Triune God, is the only true source of life and that life comes only through the grace of God. “This is why I told you,” Jesus says in verse 65, “that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” Through our confession of sin, we throw ourselves completely on the mercy and grace of God and so we eat the flesh of Jesus for we trust in him for forgiveness and true life.

It is then, however, that we can live our lives not just for God and his kingdom, but with God. In verse 66 we read, “From this time many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer followed him. ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We began this service with a silent prayer of gratitude so that we could become more aware of how God is present with us. We then had a silent prayer of confession so that we could admit our utter need for God’s grace. We then turned to God’s word. Let us now take a few moments of silent prayer and ask, “What has Jesus said to me this morning?” He may have said something in the texts of scripture. It may have been in the sermon. It may have been in the prayers, or the songs we sang or the blessing we have received. How has Jesus been with you through his word this morning?

Silence.

O blessed Trinity,

in whom we know the maker of all things seen and unseen,

the Savior of all both near and far:

By your Spirit enable us so to worship your divine majesty

that with all the company of heaven

we may magnify your glorious name, saying,

Holy, holy, holy. Glory to you, O Lord Most High. Amen.



[1] Reinhard Feldmeier, Power, Service, Humility (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2014), 77–79.

[2] Feldmeier, 8.

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August 19, 2018 The Beginning of Wisdom
(Proverbs 9:1-12; Psalm 34:9–14) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] You all know I have been away for a while. Well, while I was on sabbatical I didn’t’ preach once. I didn’t give one children’s sermon for four months, which means I am a little out of practice. So I was wondering if someone else might do the children’s sermon for me this morning. Actually I thought it would be a good idea to kind of reverse things and have the children give the children’s sermon. See? Then it could be a children’s sermon! How about that? Would you all like to give the children’s sermon? No? Why not? How about one of the older children? Or a teenager? Why not? …

Well, aside from the fact that no one else is prepared, I am the pastor and I am the one at least at Hessel Park Church who is expected to give the children’s sermon. I am the pastor and you are not. And I need to know that and b prepared to give a children’s sermon on Sunday. But this morning I am still going to get some help from some children. I have here a poster that Isaak and Mariclare made for Sunday School. It says “God is …” and then all these symbols and words of what God is: Alpha and Omega, or we might say he is the A to Z, he is the Beginning and the End. He is light, and the King, The way, the truth and the life. The Creator. He is Eternal and immortal. He is wise and all knowing. He is all these things.

Now last week we talked about how we were made to be like God. But can we be like all these things? No. We can be loving, but not Love itself. We can be wise, but not all knowing. We have eternal life in Jesus, but there was a time when we were not, so we are not Eternal. And we are certainly not the creator. So there are many ways we can be like God, but then there are also many ways in which we cannot.

You see, while we were created to be like God, the first thing we really need to know is that God is God, and we are not God. The Bible says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (9:10). Now we think of fear only in the sense of being afraid of something, but in the Bible, fear can also mean to have respect for something, and even to worship something. So the beginning of wisdom, the beginning of becoming like God is not to be afraid of God, but to respect, honor and worship God. And we know this because we don’t need to be afraid of God for he is Love. He is the Creator. He is Compassionate, forgiving and just. He is our shepherd. To fear God is to know that God is God and we are not. [End of children’s sermon]

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Many of you know that my parents are what some people call “avid birders.” They are serious birdwatchers. Their goal has been to see 5,000 different species of birds. They have travelled all over the world, from Central and South America, to China, Indonesia, India, and Australia, from Madagascar and South Africa, to Alaska and Newfoundland. They are currently in Brazil floating down the Amazon River. And just the other day they surpassed their goal of 5,000 species.

They chose 5,000 because it was about half of the 10,000 or so known species of birds in the world. It is also a very respectable number to see even among serious birdwatchers. They had to work pretty hard for many years to see this many species. But while I was looking up these facts the other night, I found an article that said that scientists are now rethinking how they divide up species. Under the old way they estimate that there are around 10,000 species of birds in the world. Under the new way, they estimate that there could be over 18,000 and maybe even 20,000 species.

While this may come as really disappointing news to my parents, it probably means that they have actually seen a couple thousands more species than they thought. To me it demonstrates something fascinating about the world we live in. While humans may be amassing more and more information and knowledge about the world, the more we learn about the world, the more we learn that there is even yet more to learn. As scientists learn more about birds, they are learning that the old ways they categorized them didn’t fit with how different populations of birds have evolved and thus formed different species. And I am sure that this is true of every field that is represented in this room, or else you all would be out of a job. The more we learn, the more we find out that there is more to learn.

For some, our growing knowledge of the universe becomes a source of pride and hubris. We tend to put our faith in progress and development and “advancement.” We think we will be able to command more and more of the universe as we come to know more and more about it. We therefore think we will be able to solve all our problems through our knowledge of the world. But the truth is that the more we learn, the more we realize that there so much we do not know. This is a cause not for hubris, but for humility. The more we learn about the universe, the more we ought to be awed by its vast complexity and diversity, but probably also, in some ways, its simplicity. All life that we know of, for example, is carbon based. This, to me, is awe inspiring and thus humbling.

In our text this morning we read that ““The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” For far too long the church has misinterpreted the meaning of fear throughout the Bible. We have taught people that our first and foremost position before God must be one of fear. We must be afraid of God and fear his punishment. And because of this many people have left the church or thought that Christians believe in a sadistic God.

In looking up the etymology of the English word fear, I found that fear is almost always associated with a purely negative feelings of terror. There are some hints that the English word occasionally means to have a sense of awe and respect, but for the most part we associate fear only with potential harm.

But as Christians we should understand “fear” in terms of how the biblical authors used the word. How did they define or re-define fear?  So if we look at this verse we just quoted, we can see that it follows a typical poetic form of Hebrew poetry called parallelism. In this you have two lines that go together and play upon each other. The meaning of each line is shaped by the other. Sometimes the second line repeats the first but this expands and interprets the meaning, and sometimes it says the opposite, which is also expands and interprets the meaning. So in our case the second line repeats and expands the meaning of the first. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” It is obvious that wisdom and understanding are synonyms. They are in parallel in the two lines of the verses. But so are “the fear of the Lord” and “knowledge of the Holy One.” The point of this poetic structure is to encourage us to associate “the fear of the Lord” with “knowledge of the Holy One.” They somehow fit together. Fear is thus not just about being afraid of God. It is about coming to know more about God.

If we turn to our Psalm we see that the fear of the Lord has little to do with being afraid. “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:8-14)

Those who fear the Lord are those who are secure in God’s care and have no need of fear. God provides for them. They have tasted and seen that God is good and so they seek to follow God. They turn from evil and do good. They seek peace and pursue it. The fear of the Lord not only has to do not only with getting to know more about God, that he is good, but also getting to know how to be like God.

If we turn to Psalm 25 we can see another example of the “fear of God” being used in the same way. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God.” V. 4: “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.”  The Psalmist is not afraid of God but has great trust and hope in God and so desires knowledge of God so he can be like God.

And what does he know of God? V. 8: “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of his covenant.”  The Psalmist knows he is a sinner, but he is not afraid for he knows God instructs sinners in his ways. He knows that God is good and upright and loving.

So what about the fear of the Lord? V. 12: “Who, then, is the man that fears the Lord? He will instruct him in the way chosen for him.” Here again we see a connection between the fear of the Lord and gaining knowledge of God and his ways. V. 13: “[The one who fears the Lord] will spend his days in prosperity and his descendants will inherit the land. The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.”

We see throughout this psalm a connection between fearing God, having knowledge of God, learning and following his ways, and then the person prospering, or being redeemed from trouble, or forgiven, and so on. Verse 14 sort of sums all this up: “The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.”  The language in verse 13 about land and prosperity is covenantal language. : “[The one who fears the Lord] will spend his days in prosperity and his descendants will inherit the land. God promised Israel the land in his covenant with Abraham. So to fear the Lord is to be welcomed into a covenantal relationship with God that is defined by love and care and grace on God’s part, and devotion and trust and worship on ours. The Psalmist begins the psalm with worship, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God.” To fear the Lord, according to the psalmist, is to trust in, revere, and worship God. To fear the Lord is not to be afraid, but to enter into a relationship of faith and faithfulness with God.

That being said, the Greek and Hebrew words for fear can also mean what we usually mean by fear – to be afraid of harm. One of the most common commands God gives to those he directly encounters or who he encounters through his angels is, “Do not be afraid.” In Genesis 15 God says to Abraham, “Do not be afraid. I am your shield, your very great reward.” In Daniel 10, Daniel sees a messenger of God, or maybe the Son of Man, and he is terrified. But the man says to him, “Do not be afraid.” When the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and then to Mary in Luke 1, he says to them, “Do not be afraid.” When the resurrected Jesus meets his disciples in Matthew 28, he says, “Do not be afraid.” In the book of Revelation when John sees the Son of Man sitting on his throne in all his glory, he falls down as if dead, but the Son of Man places his hand on John and says, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last” (1:17)

When we come face to face with God, we cannot help but be afraid. Fear in this instance is not necessarily fear that this being before us might personally cause us harm or attack us. It is the fear of harm because of the unknown. It is fear that arises from an encounter with something so other than us that we can hardly fathom the difference. Those who encounter God or Jesus or even just an angel of God encounter something so much greater and more powerful than they that they are awestruck and dumbfounded. This fear is the recognition that God is God, and we are not. It is a recognition that the difference in being between God and us is infinite. We can’t help but feel small, insignificant, unworthy and also sinful in the presence of the God who is truly and fully righteous and holy. But when we look at actual encounters with God in the scriptures, God immediately responds to this warranted fear with love and compassion. “Do not be afraid,” he says, inviting us into a covenantal relationship of trust.

Thus we return to the connection between the knowledge of God and the fear of God. The more we come to know God, the more awestruck we will be. The more we come to know of his power and majesty, the more we will respect him. The more we come to know of his justice and his compassion, the more we will honor him and want to follow in his ways. The more we know of his mercy and love, the more we will worship him. The more we fear him, the more we live in awe of him, the more we will trust in him.

So let us close with a little exercise to help us think about God and that God is God and we are not. I look around the room and I see people who are extremely knowledgeable in one field or another – Physics, Mathematics, Ethics, and so on. I see others who have amazing talents and skills – Pianists, Physical therapists, computer experts, a lawyer. Each of you has talents or abilities or knowledge that the person sitting next to you knows little or nothing about. Now think of some colleague you have and about all the things they know about your filed that you don’t know. The point is that whatever we do as humans, whatever we know, we can only master a certain number of things. Even within our field of expertise, we are all limited in our knowledge and skill. We are so finite.

Now think back to the children’s sermon. Just one thing on that poster about God was that he was the creator. Think of all that entails. It entails not only that God knows all the stuff that each of knows, but all the stuff that we realize we don’t know about our field or our practice, and all the stuff that we don’t even know that we don’t know yet. It also means not only that he knows it, but that he designed it. He made it. All. And that is only one aspect of God. We can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the knowledge of God.

The God we worship, my friends, is a God to be in awe of. He is a God to fear. But if we fear him, this God welcomes us into a relationship of love and trust with him so that we can become more and more like him. He invites us into a relationship with him so that we can come to live more in line with the way his is and the way he made the world. And that, my friends, is the definition of wisdom. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Silence]

Almighty God, teach us to fear you, so that we may worship you. Teach us to worship you, so that we may come to know you more and more. Teach us to know you, so that we may be like you. Shape us more and more in your image so that we may be wise, live in your ways, and be salt and light in this world. Amen.

 

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August 12, 2018 A Genuine Imitation
(Ephesians 4:17-5:2) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] So I wonder how many of you can play the piano? Adults and teens too, how many of you can play the piano? Even I can play the piano, maybe just the melody line, but that is at least something. But how many of you can play this [holds up a sheet of music]? That looks pretty difficult, doesn’t it? I know I couldn’t play that but I know several of you are much better at playing the piano than me. But maybe you are not accomplished enough to play this. But even if you can’t play all of this, maybe you can play this … [pianist plays the melody]. Or maybe even this … [adds harmony or bass?].  So even if you can’t play this [indicates sheet music and pianist plays the full score], you could still play a version of this piece of music.

This morning in our epistle reading Paul urges the church in Ephesus, which we call Ephesians, he says, “Be imitators of God.”  “Be imitators of God … as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1-2). That seems like a hard thing for us to do? Who of us can really imitate God? Can you be as strong and powerful as God? Can you be as loving as Jesus? Could you sacrifice your life like Jesus did on the cross for us? Paul says earlier in his letter that we are being made new in Christ in order “to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:24). Who of us can be perfect and live a life of true righteousness and holiness? Who of us is without sin like Jesus?

Well, maybe you can think of it as being a bit like playing the piano. Living without sin, in true righteousness and holiness, fully imitating God is something like this … [pianist plays full score]. We may not be able to do that or do that perfectly. But maybe we have begun to learn to live like Jesus. Maybe we have begun to be like God. Paul urges the Ephesians not to be angry with each other or fight with each other, but to forgive each other. He tells them not to steal or to lie. Rather he says to be show compassion to each other and to love one another. Now we all know how to be kind and loving, so we can make a start. We can be like this … [pianist plays the melody]. And with the help of the Holy Spirit and by working together as a church, we can all make progress and begin to be more like this … [add harmony / bass]. Paul says if we live together as a church, filled with the Holy Spirit, we will grow and build each other up in love until we become more and more like this [pianist plays full score]. [end children’s sermon]

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Have you ever seen a commercial on TV like this? You see a couple sitting at a table in a romantic restaurant. “Imagine a moment of magic.”[1] The woman opens up a small box and something inside sparkles. “Imagine a moment of pride.” The woman nonchalantly holds her hand so her ring just somehow can’t be missed. Her friends whisper in the background, “How can she afford a ring like that?” “Well stop imagining. Enjoy the magic and the pride when you wear the fabulous 5 karat cubic zirconium Princessa Evening Ring. It can be yours for only $9.95. But wait, that’s not all …” How many of you have seen a commercial like this and actually wanted a genuine, cubic zirconium ring?

Cubic zirconia is a synthetic material that is colorless and very durable that is used as an imitation diamond. But to those who care, no matter how beautiful, and brilliant cubic zirconia is, it is just not a diamond. It is a fake, an imposter, an imitation. Philosopher Charles Taylor argues that we live in the age of authenticity. Since we have broken down traditional societies in which children basically grew up into the same roles and jobs as their parents, we have to create our own identities. We have therefore come to prize authenticity. We all must find our true selves, or rather, develop, construct and create our true selves. And it just doesn’t seem to be right if the selves we create are mere imitations of someone else. No one wants to be called a fake or an imposter. The two moral maxims our society seems to be one, that we all must be true to ourselves, and two, we must therefore be tolerant of others.

As a society we value individuality and originality. But what we usually settle for is a cheap imitation that only purports to be an original. We can’t escape this. No one is able to be truly and fully original. We all operate out of a culture we inherit, with a language or languages that shape how we think. And if you look closely at anyone who is trying to be “original” by getting tattoos or piercings or through the clothes they wear, there are numerous other people being “original” in the same way. Perhaps to be truly original or unique we could embrace our dependence on others. The truth is that our identities are a mix of what we receive from others and our own individuality. The way to be truly unique is to become genuine imitations.

You see, we should not disparage imitation because we were made for imitation. God made humans “in the image of God.” Paul’s ethical advice centers on his encouragement for us to imitate God. The only way for us to be real humans is to be genuine imitations of God. Our problem, however, is that we attempt to be fake imitations. Adam and Eve were fake imitations of God. Although they were made in the image of God, although they were made to be like God, their sin was to seek their own way to be like God. By eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they sought the power to determine what is right and what is wrong for themselves. They sought to be gods, and thus false imitations of God. A false imitation denies dependence on the original and seeks to replace the original and be seen as something completely different. A genuine imitation, however, honestly admits dependence upon the original and openly seeks to follow the original. We were made to be genuine imitations of God.

But as I mentioned in the children’s sermon, that almost seems like an impossible task. Who can live in true and untainted righteousness and holiness? Won’t all our efforts be tinged with our attempts to forge our own way? How do we avoid the temptation of Adam and Eve and slip from imitating God to trying to be gods ourselves?

Humility and pride determine the difference between genuine imitation and false imitation. In thinking, reading and writing about humility over the past few months, I came across numerous authors who make the claim that pride is the root of all evil. Pride moved Adam and Eve to seek to become gods. They lacked the humility to remain dependent on God and to be happy imitating God. It takes humility to depend upon another. It takes humility to submit oneself to following in the way of another. Pride seeks independence and its own way. Humility embraces dependence and obedience.

How then are we to become genuine imitations of God? How are we to “put on the new self,” as Paul says, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:24).  Well, I think an analogy with music can help us here. Living into our true selves is like learning how to play the piece of music God created for each of us to be. Yes, we all are unique. We are all individuals, but we share a common tradition. We follow common laws and conventions and so on. And in Christ we are all joined into one body through baptism. We all play, and live and work together in and through the church. Together we are an orchestra called to play a particular symphony.

At the beginning of the chapter Paul urges us to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (4:1-2). He then goes off on what seems to be a theological tangent, “There is one body and one Spirit, … one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Paul basically riffs on the Trinity, that God is three in one – one Spirit, one Lord (who is Jesus), one God and Father. At its best, the church displays the same unity, the same harmony, as we find in our triune God.

We will talk more about humility and the Trinity in the next weeks, but theology, how we understand and talk about God and about our relationship with him, is fundamentally important. Theology matters. Think of theology as sort of like the music staff, the treble clef and the bass clef. Theology sort of sets the structure for our life with God. Theology arises out of our shared discussions on the Bible and what we know of God from the creation and from our experience of the Holy Spirit. Theology sets the boundaries and provides a common language for our life together in pursuit of becoming genuine images of God. If our goal, our purpose, our reason for being created and recreated is to be like God, we need theology. We need to know what God is like.

So we have theology, the music staff, but we also have the actual notes. We can think of the notes as the various virtues we are to exhibit in our lives. When the actions and thoughts that we have align with the virtues, then we are living our lives in tune with God’s plan for us. Our actions are the notes we play. When we live according to the virtues, when we speak truthfully, share with those in need, live at peace with others, when we are kind and filled with compassion, then our lives sound in harmony. But when we follow the vices, when we let anger overtake us, when we are bitter, when we lie about or slander others, our lives sound disharmonious. Something just isn’t right. It sounds ugly and possibly offensive. But the virtues guide us to play the right notes.

As members of Christ, we are automatically members of his body, the church. We are therefore not called to be soloists, but to be members in an orchestra. We are each called to play our own part with our own instrument. Each of us is unique yet part of the whole. Earlier in the chapter Paul says, “It was [Christ himself] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (4:11-2). This morning we ordained 2 new elders and a deacon. While we all play a particular instrument, maybe we have a trumpet section, and a violin section. The elders and deacons are then like the lead players of each section. They are called to lead and encourage the whole section to play the best they can play, to “equip them for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up.”

So we have the musical staff, the different instruments and sections all playing different notes but harmoniously together, but only if they all follow the same rhythm. Later in the letter Paul says, “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (5:18-19). The spiritual disciplines and practices of the church set the rhythm of the church and the Christian life. We meet every week for corporate worship. Maybe we meet every other week in a small group. We each have our own times to “practice,” maybe daily or weekly. We pray, read and meditate on scripture, and give of our time and money to support the church and those who are in need. We take one day a week off from work to rest and observe the Sabbath. The rhythms of the spiritual disciplines open us up to the movements of the Holy Spirit and keep us in time with the Spirit of God and Jesus, the director of the orchestra.

Sisters and brothers, let us together “Be imitators of God … as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Jesus showed us the love of God through his life and through his death on the cross, but he also showed us the humility of God – the God who loved us so much he was willing to humble himself and become incarnate so that he could lead us into a life of obedience and faithfulness by dying on a cross for us. So let us seek to follow Christ in love and humility so that we may become genuine imitations of God.

Almighty God, in Christ you came to us in the flesh to teach us, to heal us, to lead us into a life of obedience and to overcome death and sin through his death and resurrection. Fill us with your Spirit that we may put off our old selves and put on our news selves, created to be like you in love and humility. Amen.



[1] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KK09LxsvOXY

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April 8, 2018 Through August 5
(Pastor Tim on sabbatical leave) There is no audio for this sermon.